South Korea Plans Advanced Reactor To Burn Spent Nuclear Fuel

Like the United States, South Korea has a growing, burdensome stockpile of spent nuclear fuel. But Korea plans to do something about it, using technology that has been gathering dust in the U.S. to build a reactor that will recycle spent fuel to produce more electricity and less noxious waste.
To build the Generation IV sodium-fast reactor, South Korea has partnered with Argonne National Laboratory, whose scientists have been advocating the technology since the 1940s.
"In the U.S.A. you have good experience for metal-fuel sodium fast reactors, but you don't have any plan for design and construction of SFRs," said Younggyun Kim, director of South Korea's Sodium Fast Reactor Development Agency, in an appearance at the University of Chicago Tuesday.
"The U.S.A. wants to keep the leadership in this field. To keep the leadership, you have to keep the manpower. To keep the manpower, you have to have some kind of project."
That project will involve construction of an SFR in 2028 in South Korea, a small nation fast running out of storage space for spent fuel from its 44 conventional light-water reactors.
"The spent-fuel problem is very serious in Korea right now," said Kwang-Seok Lee, director of the Center for ROK-US Nuclear Cooperation at the Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute. Korea currently has 13,254 tons of waste, with capacity for 18,630 tons.
Lee projected a waste stockpile of 47,000 tons by 2050.
"Korea is a very, very small country—small land—so we expect it will be very difficult to find some final disposal site in Korea."
But neither can Korea afford to give up nuclear power, Lee said, especially with climate-change measures expected to raise the price of imported fossil fuels.
"You know that Korea doesn't have any energy resources. We import 97 percent of energy resources from abroad," Lee said. "Nuclear energy is a must, not a choice, in Korea, considering the high energy dependence on abroad."
Korean officials believe they can tackle both problems with one Generation IV reactor. The spent fuel will be recycled using a pyro-processing system that is considered less of a proliferation risk because it cannot separately extract weapons-grade plutonium.
"Generation IV means that reactor has some characteristics such as enhanced safety, improved economics, environmentally friendliness with waste minimization, and proliferation resistance," Kim said. "Sustainability also."
"The role of the sodium fast reactor in Korea is designed to burn up the spent-fuel produced by the light-water reactors," he said. "By doing that we reduce the spent-fuel amount and decrease radiotoxicity, and increase high-level waste disposal efficiency before the final disposal of the nuclear waste."
Korea will still find itself with spent fuel, but with less, and the radioisotopes in waste from the SFR will not remain radiotoxic for nearly as long.
"It can reduce the time from 300,000 years to 300 years," Lee said, "so it is a very big benefit for us."
At one time, American scientists promoted this type of reactor for domestic use in the United States, but in the late 1940s, the U.S. military pursued light-water reactors. The nuclear industry infrastructure was built to support LWRs, and fuel reprocessing took advantage of the extraction of plutonium for nuclear weapons.
Unlike light-water reactors, SFRs will not suffer meltdowns, said physicist Robert Rosner, former director of Argonne and a founder of the Energy Policy Institute of Chicago, which hosted the Korean visitors Tuesday. When SFRs lose power for cooling, they begin to get hot, but the fuel assemblies stop reacting and begin to cool before they reach their melting point.
""It's an amazing design. It's one of the reasons Enrico Fermi himself pushed for this type of reactor," Rosner said.
"We should have never gone down the light-water reactor route," he added, "but we did."

Tip Jar: If you found value on this page, please consider tipping the author.