Last week, the Department of Energy (DOE) announced a new funding program issued by the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E). An impressive $40 million in funds are being set aside to support the new Optimizing Nuclear Waste and Advanced Reactor Disposal Systems (ONWARDS) program. This endeavor will focus on preventing or reducing nuclear waste and improving disposal options. The goal is for a 10x reduction in nuclear waste, through the following three options identified in the press release:

  1. Process: Improvements in fuel recycling that significantly minimize waste volumes, improve intrinsic proliferation resistance, increase resource use, and bolster advanced reactor commercialization.
  2. Safeguards: Improvements in sensor and data fusion technologies that enable accurate and timely accounting of nuclear materials.
  3. Waste form: Development of high-performance waste forms for all advanced reactor classes with an emphasis on those forms that span multiple reactor classes and disposal environments and are safe and stable over required timescales.

Following the announcement, ARPA-E posted a funding opportunities announcement (FOA) for the ONWARDS program, which indicates that selected applicants will “develop and demonstrate sustainable technologies that will significantly improve the disposal impact of used nuclear fuel (UNF) and other waste streams stemming from the implementation of [advanced reactor] fuel cycles by developing innovative and cost-effective approaches in reprocessing, material accountancy, and waste forms.” A second, almost identical FOA (with differing eligibility requirements) is also posted under the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and the Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) program, which ARPA-E administers. Concept papers for each FOA are due July 9, 2021.

This ARPA-E opportunity tackles a critical issue of how advanced nuclear plants can address the challenging issue of disposal of spent nuclear fuel and high-level waste.  Although nuclear power plant owners and operators have set aside billions of dollars for disposal of spent nuclear fuel—those funds largely are sitting idle until the federal government can decide on where to site a nuclear waste repository.  The ONWARDS program could help mitigate this issue by reducing the amount of waste advanced reactors create in general.  One of the options considered—the use of fuel recycling, may prove to be complex given potential proliferation concerns, but new fuel recycling technologies have the potential to significantly improve the safety and security of the recycling process, while dramatically reducing the amount of fuel to be disposed of.  The NRC has been looking into establishing regulations on the use of fuel recycling, although recently the NRC staff requested to discontinue the rulemaking, with potentially using the 10 CFR Part 50 framework instead for any recycling facility applications that are submitted to the agency.

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