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ARPA-E to award up to $48M for new program to recycle used nuclear fuel securely and economically: CURIE

The US Department of Energy (DOE) announced up to $48 million in funding for a new Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) program—Converting UNF Radioisotopes Into Energy (CURIE)—that will support the deployment of Advanced Nuclear Reactor (AR) technology by providing safe and sustainable domestic fuel stocks. (DE-FOA-0002691)

The US has accumulated approximately 86,000 metric tons of 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.

The program goal of CURIE is to enable commercially viable reprocessing of used nuclear fuel (UNF) from the current light water reactor (LWR) fleet by resolving key gaps/barriers in reprocessing technologies, process monitoring, and facility design.

The actinides (radioactive metallic elements) in LWR UNF would ideally be reprocessed into feedstock that would be used to fuel advanced nuclear reactors (ARs), while other commercially valuable materials would be harvested for industrial and medical uses.

Projects funded under CURIE will develop innovative separations technologies, process monitoring techniques for special nuclear material (SNM), and/or equipment designs that will significantly improve the economics and process monitoring of reprocessing technologies while dramatically reducing the volume of high-level waste (HLW) from LWR UNF requiring disposal.

Specifically, CURIE is interested in separations technologies, process monitoring to enable predictive material accountancy, innovative equipment designs, and systems analyses that satisfy one or more of the global program metrics without negatively impacting other program metrics:

  1. Significantly (i.e., at least an order of magnitude) reduce the volume of LWR HLW requiring permanent disposal. Reductions in volume can be achieved multiple ways, including by reconstituting UNF cladding and fission products into commercial products, accounting for reductions in future production of HLW due to the use of recycled material, or other means. Such a strategy would be transformational by enabling the expansion of nuclear power while limiting the waste disposal burden.

  2. Maintain disposal costs in the range of 0.1¢/kilowatt-hour (kWh).

  3. Provide a 1¢/kWh fuel cost for a 200 metric tons heavy metal (MTHM)/yr nth-of-a-kind (NOAK) facility. This cost metric is defined in the context of a hypothetical advanced reactor with a 200 MWe capacity and 100,000 MWdt burnup. ARPA-E estimates that, for this hypothetical reactor, the High-Assay Low-Enriched Uranium (HALEU) fuel cost would be approximately 1.2¢/kWh. Developing a cost-competitive reprocessing technology would minimize the production of further HLW by developing a commercial market for reprocessed materials, while stabilizing AR fueling with a domestic material source.

    The 1¢/kWh cost metric is also comparable to LWR fuelcosts, which are estimated at 0.65¢/kWh. Therefore, reprocessed fuel at 1¢/kWh could enable backwards compatibility with the existing LWR fleet.

  4. Enable in situ SNM process monitoring approaches that predict, within 1% uncertainty and under representative conditions, the post-process material accountancy. Such technologies would be transformative in their ability to mitigate in-process diversion of UNF, enable off-site monitoring, provide substantially improved process control, and benefit future safeguards/monitoring.

  5. Enable UNF separations that do not produce pure plutonium streams. The currently used commercial UNF separations process, PUREX, produces a pure plutonium stream. Separations that develop a co-recovered actinide product, either U/Pu or U/TRU, would represent a lower proliferation risk and are consistent with CURIE program goals of increasing the overall proliferation resistance of reprocessing technologies and products.

CURIE is part of a comprehensive, nearly $90-million ARPA-E strategy to manage and reduce the nation’s HLW waste inventory and is designed to complement the ARPA-E ONWARDS program.


ARPA-E research and development in the advanced reactor technology space. Source: ARPA-E

While both the ONWARDS and CURIE programs seek to enable innovations that will minimize HLW quantities, CURIE focuses on the development of technologies that will enable UNF from the current LWR fleet to be utilized as feedstock for future nuclear fuel.

CURIE will fuel advanced reactors and provide important clean energy elements, all while drastically reducing waste. With this new program, we’re emphasizing safeguards and lowered costs as we provide clean energy technology options for the future.

—Dr. Jennifer Gerbi, Acting Director of ARPA-E

Unveiled during Women’s History Month, CURIE is named to honor pioneering physicist and chemist Marie Curie. It joins ARPA-E’s other programs supporting AR development, including MEITNER—whose namesake Lise Meitner discovered fission and the element protactinium—GEMINA, and ONWARDS.


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