Idaho National Laboratory sprawls across nearly 900 square miles in the Southeastern corner of its namesake state. INL has served as the proving grounds for the future of nuclear energy technology for many years.
Along the way, the laboratory has generated hundreds of tons of uranium waste that is not efficient and capable of producing electricity. The spent fuel resides in temporary storage facilities, while politicians duke it out over the issue of where to bury it.
Is Nuclear Energy the Future?
Most of the fuel that is spent will probably end up underground. However, there are many open questions. As it turns out, many people are not thrilled by the idea of having nuclear waste buried in their backyards. However, some of the spent fuel may have a second chance at life, feeding various nuclear reactors that will be safer and smaller than their predecessors.
Last week, INL tapped the nuclear energy startup Oklo as to be the first company to gain access to the recycled uranium fuel. The reactor of Oklo, known as Aurora, will be different from the reactors on the grid today. There are 96 nuclear reactors in America, and they are housed on sprawling campuses. They are capable of providing about 4,000 megawatts of power. Aurora, on the other hand, will look like a small A-frame cabin. It will generate just 1.5 megawatts. Oklo’s reactor departs from legacy nuclear systems in its fuel of choice. It’s known as “low-enriched, high-assay” or Haleu, and it’s a fuel that packs more energy into a smaller package.
In nature, uranium one mostly consists of the uranium-235 and isotope uranium-238. Only uranium-235 can sustain the fission reaction that can make nuclear reactors tick. This is why turning the ore into usable fuel requires separating the uranium-238 out in a process that is called enrichment.
What Fuel Is Used For US Nuclear Reactors?
Today, the nuclear reactors in the United States of America use fuel that is only enriched to less than 5 percent. However, Haleu fuel is enriched to anywhere from 5 to 20 percent. Unlike INL, these companies will be enriching uranium to produce Haleu fuel rather than downblending highly enriched uranium from spent nuclear fuel.