Uranium mining, radioactive waste and the nuclear fuel cycle

By Achim Klüppelberg

Last Tuesday NUCLEARWATERS guest Andrei Stsiapanau and I interviewed Dima Litvinov on his experiences from being Greenpeace’s representative in Russia. Among other issues, Russian nuclear waste handling during the 1990s became a main topic of our conversation.

While the interview as such was very stimulating for us as nuclear historians, two things stayed in my thoughts afterwards. First, the characteristics of the nuclear fuel cycle and secondly the role of water in it. As NUCLEARWATERS project leader Per Högselius has argued, in reality there is no such thing as a fuel “cycle” – proclamations of the nuclear industry notwithstanding. Instead, the management of nuclear fuel follows a linear process. With the mining of uranium it has a clear beginning and with the storage of nuclear waste it has its end. The actual amount of recycled fuel elements can in some cases prolong its lifetime, but they will still ultimately end up as waste. Dima shared with us his experiences of both the mining and the storage aspect. It became apparent that water has been a very crucial component in both. Unfortunately, water is often the carrier of radionuclide emissions in both instances, as it is used as a cleaning agent in the mining process and as a medium for storage in the case of historical dumping of nuclear waste into the sea.

In other words, water is crucial not only for the operation of nuclear power plants, but in virtually all segments of nuclear fuel systems. If we want to improve nuclear safety, water hence needs to be accounted for in our studies of the nuclear industry as a whole.

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