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MYRRHA: An accelerator driven system to manage radioactive waste

Hamid Aït Abderrahim

A 3-D render of the full MYRRHA facilty.

(Photo: MYRRHA)

One major — and false — objection sometimes cited against nuclear power is that “there is no solution to the nuclear waste problem”. Spent nuclear fuel that has not been reprocessed remains radiotoxic above levels found in natural uranium ore for approximately 300 000 years, and the vast majority of uranium and plutonium remains unburned within it. While technical solutions for such long term disposal exist, there is another route: nuclear fuel recycling.

Both the uranium and plutonium from spent fuel can be recycled by reprocessing and used in new nuclear fuels for further power generation. However, the residue from standard reprocessing leaves minor actinides — elements close to uranium in the periodic table which cannot be burned in current power reactors. Radioactive waste containing them still requires 10 000 years to return to natural levels.

MYRRHA (Multi-purpose Hybrid Research Reactor for High-tech Applications) is a project currently under construction at the Belgian Nuclear Research Centre (SCK CEN) based on the accelerator-driven system (ADS) concept that aims to address actinides, and, more particularly, the minor ones. The project seeks to demonstrate, at the engineering level, ADS and the feasibility of the transmutation of the minor actinides on an industrial scale. By reducing radiotoxicity, this could reduce the volume of high level radioactive waste by 99 per cent and the time required for storage to just 300 years.

MYRRHA’s design differs from most current reactors in two important aspects. First, it uses fast neutrons, which are required to fission the minor actinides. Second, it can operate in a subcritical mode — i.e. without causing a self-sustaining chain fission reaction — as it is coupled to a high energy proton accelerator producing the needed primary neutrons in the centre of the reactor core via spallation reactions. This is necessary to ensure reactivity control when burning the minor actinides and provides the additional advantage that, as soon as the accelerator stops, the chain fission reaction stops and the reactor shuts down. As an essential safety measure, it is designed so that the residual decay heat can be removed by natural circulation without any active system or intervention.

In order to transmute a substantial proportion of the world’s spent fuel waste, a network of industrial facilities will be required. To date, the technologies involved in MYRRHA have been proven individually on the laboratory scale at experimental facilities. Therefore, MYRRHA is a pre-industrial pilot plant aimed at integrating and testing the technologies at scale while substantially increasing reliability.

There are many scientific, engineering and regulatory challenges that will need to be met during the development of this first-of-a-kind project. A pre-licensing review undertaken by the Belgian nuclear regulatory agency, after close consultation with the project developers, has not revealed any concerns strong enough to put the future licence of MYRRHA in doubt. We hope this will attract many young people in Belgium and from elsewhere to the nuclear field, which the country feels is of great importance.

While the main emphasis of the project is on managing radioactive waste, there are many other applications of this facility in cutting edge research and development. The MYRRHA project is divided into three stages. The first is already under construction and will see the lower energy (100 megaelectronvolt (MeV)) part of the proton accelerator complex completed, with many of the research activities expected to begin in around 2027. These will be centred around the Isotope Separation On-Line (ISOL@MYRRHA) system, which can select individual isotopes for use in radiopharmaceuticals and produce radioactive ion beams for a wide variety of nuclear physics experiments supplemented with a Full Power Facility (FPF) suited for fusion materials research.

The high precision of measurements that can be made on radioactive beams delivered by ISOL@MYRRHA may also contribute to understanding the validity of the ‘standard model’ of particle physics. If the first stage is successful and demonstrates the unprecedented accelerator reliability needed for ADS, the second stage will see the proton accelerator brought to full power (600 MeV). The final stage will be the construction of the sub-critical reactor itself. Lead–bismuth (Pb–Bi) is used as a coolant to remove heat generated from the nuclear reactor. The design of reactor core is flexible and can be loaded with mixed-oxide fuel, minor actinides and targets for medical isotope production. It will offer rigs for irradiation and corrosion testing of future structural materials for fast fission and even future fusion reactors. The MYRRHA Pb–Bi cooled reactor can be used as an experimental technology test plant for fourth generation lead cooled fast reactors.

The Belgian Government has invested about €200 million in the MYRRHA project so far, and supplemented €558 million in 2018 for the period 2019–2038 based on an overall project estimate of about €1.6 billion. A not-for-profit entity has been created. This will enable MYRRHA to attract future investment from foreign governments and entities to move on to its second and third phases, and to operate as an international organization. MYRRHA has been listed in the European Strategy Forum on Research Infrastructures (ESFRI), which is composed of projects identified by research communities as leading edge, and the Nuclear Physics European Collaboration Committee (NuPECC) included ISOL@MYRRHA in its long-range plan of major European nuclear physics facilities. The European Strategic Energy Technology Plan (SET Plan), designed to encourage low carbon technologies, also lists MYRRHA, which enables it to receive financing from the European Investment Bank.

The potential for recycling uranium and plutonium into fuel for fast spectrum systems also reduces the demand for mining of uranium ore and substantially increases the amount of energy recovered from it. Increased efficiency of raw material use and waste reduction are in high demand by many industries, and for these reasons MYRRHA has been integrated into the Belgian national policies for strategic investment and the integrated national energy and climate plan.


May, 2022
Vol. 63-2

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