Nuclear Fuel: Russia's Potential Environmental Disaster

Nuclear Fuel FAQ

What is spent nuclear fuel?

Spent nuclear fuel is the radioactive by-product created by the fission process of a nuclear power plant. Spent fuel is classified as high-level nuclear waste, meaning it is highly radioactive. Workers must wear protective clothing to shield themselves from the radiation it produces. The spent fuel must be stored in special facilities to shield the environment from the radiation.

How is spent nuclear fuel created?

To understand how spent fuel is created, it is first necessary to understand how it changes from nuclear fuel into a by-product. Uranium ore is mined and then refined to extract the uranium. Then it must be enriched before it can be used in a nuclear power plant. Naturally occurring uranium is about 99.3 percent uranium-238 and about 0.7 percent uranium-235. A power plant requires that the uranium be enriched to 4 to 5 percent uranium-235. The enriched uranium is then formed into a hard ceramic pellet about an inch long and a half-inch in diameter, which is placed in a reactor's fuel rod.

Every 12-24 months, depending on the regulations of individual countries, the reactor is shut down and the oldest fuel rods are replaced. By this time most of the uranium-235 is depleted. What remains is mostly uranium-238 and plutonium-239. The "spent" nuclear fuel is now more radioactive than it was before it was first used. It is also very hot and must be cooled sufficiently before it can be stored or reprocessed.

Here's a quick overview of the nuclear fuel process, from mining to disposal.
Learn how a nuclear power plant works.
For a primer on nuclear fission, visit Thinkquest.

How much energy is produced?

Each fuel pellet produces energy equivalent to 1,780 pounds of coal, or 149 gallons of oil, or 17,000 cubic feet of natural gas. Nuclear power plants produce about 2,300 billion kWh per year worldwide, or roughly 16 percent of the world's electrical power. In the United States nuclear reactors account for 20 percent of the electricity produced, or about 754 billion kWh. Russian nuclear reactors produce 120 billion kWh, which is about 15 percent of the country's total power production.

This chart shows nuclear power plants of the world.
Here is information about Russia's nuclear reactors.

How much spent nuclear fuel is generated?

A typical nuclear power plant produces about 20-30 metric tons of high-level nuclear waste per year. The United States produces a total of about 2,000 metric tons annually. Russia produces about 600 metric tons per year. Worldwide about 9,000 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel are produced.

How is spent nuclear fuel stored?

Spent nuclear fuel is very hot and radioactive. It is placed in a large pool of water in a special storage facility after it is removed from the reactor, and remains there for a long period of time. After 20-30 years, the waste is sufficiently cool enough to bury for permanent storage or to reprocess. A new method of temporary storage, called dry storage, stores the fuel rods in large, shielded concrete containers until they are cool instead of immersing them in a water pool.

The United States has been planning for years to permanently store nuclear waste in a national underground storage facility. The latest plans call for the facility to be built in the Yucca mountains in Nevada. However, state leaders, antinuclear activists, and Native American Indians strongly object, and the project is years behind schedule. Russia plans to reprocess most of its spent nuclear fuel, but has not yet revealed where the storage sites will be located.

An overview of how nuclear waste is stored from Thinkquest.

What is reprocessing?

Reprocessing is the process of transforming spent nuclear fuel into a usable by-product and reducing its overall toxicity. It is considered by many to be a viable option in reducing the amount of waste generated by a nuclear power plant. The United States does not commercially use this method, but other countries including France, Britain, and Japan do. During reprocessing, plutonium and uranium are separated from the waste. The plutonium can be used as fuel for a nuclear reactor. The uranium, which is the uranium-238 isotope, can be combined with new fuel or can be used to weaken the concentration of uranium-235 in recycled uranium from nuclear weapons.

Details of the pros and cons of reprocessing can be found here.

Is reprocessing safe?

The reprocessing of nuclear fuel is a hot topic right now. Proponents say that reprocessing decreases the amount of radioactivity in the waste, therefore, making the whole nuclear fuel process safer. Opponents say that nuclear fuel and nuclear power generation are too dangerous and harmful to the environment. Additionally, reprocessing creates plutonium, which can be used as fuel for a reactor—or can be used to make nuclear weapons. All experts agree that spent nuclear fuel can be dangerous and must be handled very carefully. Listed below are some general sites on nuclear power from various organizations.

World Nuclear Association
Bellona (A Russian environmental site on nuclear power)
News from lycos (News about Russia importing spent fuel)