The fuel cycle in use today in the United States faces challenges in achieving the goals of sustainability. While used fuel is safely stored at reactor sites, the development of a system to manage all of the waste now and in the future has proven to be a persistently difficult task. Uncertainties about long-term resource availability make it difficult to properly value reusable material in used fuel or the relative importance that should be placed on the development of new sources of nuclear fuel. There are a number of challenges that specifically impact the Fuel Cycle Options campaign.
Developing Consensus on FCT Program Focus
A significant challenge facing the FCT program is the need to justifiably focus R&D on technologies that would support development of sustainable fuel cycles. This requires understanding of the characteristics of such fuel cycles, which can be obtained by evaluation and selection of a relatively small number of most promising fuel cycle options from the large number of possible options and to do so in a way that develops consensus among program participants and other stakeholders. The Fuel Cycle Options campaign has the responsibility for developing the supporting approach and conducting the fuel cycle evaluation and screening to provide such understanding.
Fluid Nuclear Energy Policy
One challenge facing the FCT program, and similar predecessor programs, is how to identify and prioritize R&D on nuclear fuel cycles and the supporting technologies given that there have been and continue to be a number of concerns about the use of nuclear power, each of which may focus R&D effort in a given direction, and that the relative importance of each of these concerns evolves with time and events, resulting in corresponding changes in R&D priority and direction. The time frame for such changes can be much shorter than the typical decade or longer effort for successful nuclear technology development, given the dynamic political (biennial and quadrennial) and fiscal (annual) environment that involves an ongoing socio-political evaluation of issues and complex technologies by both the public and their political representatives. To inform such decisions, the Fuel Cycle Option campaign in the FCT program, supported by the other FCT R&D campaigns, has the responsibility to provide unbiased objective technical information that identifies the impact, both positive and negative, of potential policy choices or changes in R&D direction.
Potential Restrictions of Options
United States policies related to issues concerning nuclear power, including non-proliferation, reprocessing of used nuclear fuel, and long-term geological disposal of waste products, have at times prompted political decisions that may restrict consideration of some fuel cycle options. The Fuel Cycle Options campaign in the FCT R&D program must develop and maintain a clear and justifiable awareness of such potential limitations dictated by policy, and must develop the technical basis for informing policy decisions as to the efficacy of such constraints or limitations in achieving the desired policy goals.
Lack of Data and Experience with Advanced Systems and Supporting Technologies
Many innovative technologies and fuel cycle system options are not yet sufficiently mature to provide sufficient detail and reliability in the data to allow for an evaluation based on a proven level of performance, while others may have little or no experimental data at all. This situation can result in a significant uncertainty about the conclusions of such evaluations, depending on the extent to which basic principles and related technical information can be used to estimate the performance of such technologies. As a consequence, conclusions from comparisons with more mature systems and technologies may be difficult to develop and justify, especially if the performance differences are small. The Fuel Cycle Options campaign in the FCT R&D program, supported by the other FCT R&D campaigns, has the responsibility to develop effective analytical processes and to perform objective assessments that can inform decisions about fuel cycle R&D even in consideration of such uncertainties.
Availability of Past Work and Results
A considerable amount of nuclear-related R&D has been conducted in the past 50 years. However, many of the results are not readily accessible to program participants, especially those created prior to the widespread use of computer-based word processing for creating reports and other documents. Additionally, many of the scientists and engineers who performed those studies are no longer available to program participants. The Fuel Cycle Options campaign in the FCT R&D program has the responsibility to support the identification and archiving of such work in a manner that facilitates availability to the FCT programs, focusing on electronic storage and retrieval capabilities to facilitate access.