ANEEL may be a safer and less expensive alternative to enriched uranium.
Nuclear power has the potential to be a game-changer in the battle against climate change since it is both cleaner and more reliable than fossil fuels and renewables like wind and solar.
However, one bottleneck in the sector is the lack of a better nuclear fuel, which a group of academics may have worked out how to create.
Need for a Better Nuclear Fuel
Nuclear reactors use the heavy metal uranium to separate atoms and release energy, which is used to generate electricity.
Uranium isn't very scarce — there's roughly as much of it on Earth as there is tin — but it's not ideal for nuclear fuel right out of the ground, so the next stage is enrichment, which concentrates a rare isotope called uranium-235, which makes the atoms easier to break. This procedure is both time-consuming and costly.
When enriched uranium is used as a nuclear fuel, the byproduct is nuclear waste, which includes radioactive elements like plutonium.
One of the issues of nuclear energy is the disposal of this waste. Another factor to consider is that both plutonium and highly enriched uranium can be used to create weapons, posing a threat of proliferation.
All of this is to suggest that enriched uranium isn't always the best nuclear fuel, but converting to something else often necessitates the development of a completely new form of reactor — such as a molten salt reactor — which is neither cheap nor simple.
Researchers in the United States have devised a new nuclear fuel that they claim will work with two existing types of nuclear reactors, including 49 that are now operational in nine nations, while also overcoming many of the drawbacks of enriched uranium.
The new nuclear fuel is called Advanced Nuclear Energy for Enriched Life (ANEEL), and it’s the result of a collaboration between the U.S. Department of Energy’s Idaho National Laboratory (INL), Texas A&M University, and the Chicago-based company Clean Core Thorium Energy.
ANEEL combines the metal thorium with low-grade enriched uranium.
Thorium is about four times more abundant than uranium and easier to extract — it can even be pulled from seawater — which could bring nuclear energy to places where access to uranium is currently a barrier.
Dozens of reactors are already compatible with the new nuclear fuel.
ANEEL reportedly generates more energy than enriched uranium, pound for pound. It produces 80% less waste, and the waste it does produce contains less plutonium.
ANEEL is also less likely than uranium to cause a meltdown, thanks to a lower operating temperature and a higher melting point.
Texas A&M is now producing ANEEL pellets to send to the INL for extensive testing.
If the nuclear fuel meets safety standards, it could potentially replace uranium in the dozens of compatible nuclear reactors across the globe — and maybe even spur investment in more ANEEL-ready reactors.