Glossary of terms
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Reprocessing nuclear fuel
- Reprocessing nuclear fuel
- Chemical treatment of used reactor fuel to separate uranium and plutonium, and possibly the very heavy transuranic elements (mostly plutonium and curium) from the fission nuclear waste.
- By reprocessing spent fuel one can:
- turn nuclear waste into nuclear fuel for use in another nuclear power plant;
- hugely reduce the quantity of high-level waste which today includes the transuranic elements;
- Reprocessing is at the heart of the so-called "closed fuel cycle". The latter is considered a more promising nuclear plant alternative than the predominant "open fuel cycle" in which uranium is burned once in the reactor, leaving large amounts of high-level waste.
- However, the option presents two shortcomings:
- It is a much costlier process than the once-through cycle;
- Reprocessing is intrinsically hazardous and complex.
- In 2008, France is the number one adopter, but only recycles 28% by mass of yearly spent fuel.
- Depleted uranium is left as a by-product of uranium enrichment in the fuel cycle, and it generally has 0.25% to 0.30% U-235, the rest being U-238. Depleted uranium can be blended with highly-enriched uranium (e.g. from weapons) to make reactor fuel or, given its high density, it may be used in products such as special ammunition and shielding for military purposes.