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IAEA Project Connects Dots Between Unconventional Uranium Extraction and High Temperature Nuclear Power Reactors

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Recovery of uranium from phosphoric acid, also resulting in a cleaner fertilizer. (Photo: Philippine Nuclear Research Institute)

A multi-faceted IAEA research project linking unconventional uranium extraction and high temperature nuclear power reactors has reached its final phase. The project that involves 17 institutes from 16 Member States is focusing on how to make uranium production ‘energy neutral’.

Primary ores such as phosphate rock (the basic ore from which fertilizer is made), copper and rare earth elements sometimes contain significant amounts of natural uranium and other valuable materials. Energy neutral mineral processing is the idea to recover these unconventional uranium resources as a byproduct during primary ore processing and use them, after enrichment and fuel production, to generate greenhouse gas lean energy with nuclear power reactors.

Energy neutrality is reached if the energy produced from the extracted uranium is equal to or larger than the energy required for primary ore processing, uranium extraction and fuel production. In the future, thorium might similarly contribute to energy neutrality in such an approach. Additionally, the naturally occurring radioactive material (NORM) is extracted in the process, leading to cleaner products (such as phosphoric acid for fertilizers) and tailings (such as phosphogypsum, which can be used as building material).

The IAEA’s coordinated research project on energy neutral mineral processing is a unique forum that brings together experts concerned with the development of high temperature reactors, as well as experts working in mineral processing and unconventional uranium extraction.

“It is quite a unique combination to conduct a coordinated research project that requires core competencies as different as mineral processing and high temperature reactor operation,” said Peter Woods, Team Leader in the IAEA’s Division of Nuclear Fuel Cycle and Waste Technology.

Frederik Reitsma, who leads IAEA’s gas cooled reactor technology development activities and serves as the Scientific Secretary of the Coordinated Research Project, added: “An elegant solution to consider for the future is to use heat and electricity from a small and modular high temperature reactor, built near the mineral processing plant, to process the raw material and have enough uranium by-product to be energy neutral. The research reported by the participating member states show this might be feasible.”

“Using reliable, inexpensive and greenhouse gas lean power from nuclear reactors for mineral development at processing centers but particularly at remote location is something the minerals processing industry long dreams of,” he said.

High temperature gas cooled reactors have been operated as research and prototype reactors since the 1960s and are currently experiencing increased interest. Two research reactors of this type are operating in Japan (HTTR, since 1998) and China (HTR-10, since 2000) and a demonstration plant is under construction in China (HTR-PM), planned to be commissioned soon.

Further environmental and health advances are also possible with this connection between the two technical areas: “That the extraction of uranium during mineral processing has the potential to greatly improve the quality of the final product and the environmental footprint of the mine tailings is what convinced our team to seriously consider this revolutionary approach and join the project at IAEA,” explained Dr. Nahhar Al Khaledi from the Radiation Protection Department in Kuwait.

Representatives from 15 Member States spread over five continents gathered in Vienna from 2 to 6 July for the final Research Coordination Meeting to discuss the progress and the challenges associated with energy neutral mineral processing. First results of this four-year project have already been made available in a joint article published in the scientific publication Sustainability earlier this year and will be supported by a comprehensive IAEA Technical Document (TECDOC) in 2019.

An elegant solution to consider for the future is to use heat and electricity from a small and modular high temperature reactor, built near the mineral processing plant, to process the raw material and have enough uranium by-product to be energy neutral.
Frederik Reitsma, Nuclear Engineer, IAEA

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