Converting UNF Radioisotopes Into Energy

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Program Description:

The U.S. has accumulated approximately 86,000 metric tons of used nuclear fuel (UNF) from light-water reactors (LWRs), a value that increases by approximately 2,000 tons per year. This UNF is destined for permanent disposal even though more than 90% of its energy remains. Reprocessing UNF to recover reusable actinides and recycling them into new fuel for advanced reactors (ARs) would improve fuel utilization and drastically reduce the volume of waste requiring permanent disposal. CURIE seeks to develop innovative separations technologies, material accountancy, and online monitoring technologies, as well as designs for a reprocessing facility that will enable group recovery of actinides for AR feedstocks, incorporate in situ process monitoring, minimize waste volumes, enable a 1¢/kilowatt-hour (kWh) fuel cost for AR fuels, and maintain disposal costs in the range of 0.1¢/kWh.

Innovation Need:

Innovative technologies that enable the secure, economical reprocessing of the nation’s LWR UNF could substantially reduce the volume, heat load, and radiotoxicity of waste requiring permanent disposal while providing a valuable and sustainable fuel feedstock for advanced fast reactors. Technical categories identified as the most likely to enable secure, economical reprocessing of UNF to meet these goals include:

  • • Reprocessing technologies: improvements in preparing UNF assemblies for chemical separations; treatment of gaseous process streams; and separations technologies, such as aqueous separations, pyroprocessing, and fluoride volatility, that significantly reduce waste volumes, improve intrinsic proliferation resistance, and provide AR feedstocks;
  • • Integrated monitoring and materials accountancy: improvements in sensor and data fusion technologies that enable accurate and timely accounting of nuclear materials;
  • • Facility design and systems analysis: technoeconomic and systems analyses of novel approaches to designing, constructing, and operating reprocessing facilities (e.g., modularization, safeguards-by-design, process intensification), to improve safeguardability, reduce costs, and facilitate siting and licensing of reprocessing facilities.

Potential Impact:

By enabling the secure and economical recycling of the nation’s inventory of LWR UNF, CURIE will improve U.S. energy security, help protect the environment, and contribute to the economy in the following ways: 


Support the deployment of AR technologies by providing safe and sustainable domestic fuel stocks. Improvements in monitoring capabilities could allow for more precise controls of the various reprocessing stages while ensuring increased security of materials of concern.


Substantially reduce the disposal impact of the nation’s inventory of LWR UNF, decrease uranium mining requirements, and support a comprehensive national strategy to store radioactive waste safely and securely.


Complement ARPA-E’s existing nuclear energy research portfolio, such as the MEITNER, GEMINA, and ONWARDS programs in AR R&D, further ensuring the commercial viability of innovative new ARs, and enable an additional revenue stream via valuable radionuclides recovered from UNF for diverse applications.


Program Director:
Dr. Jenifer Shafer
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