From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :
Prelims level : Nuclear Enrichment
Mains level : Not Much
The Russian state-owned nuclear energy corporation Rosatom has offered a more advanced fuel option to India’s largest nuclear power station at Kudankulam, which will allow its reactors to run for an extended 2-year cycle without stopping to load fresh fuel.
What is the news?
- Rosatom’s nuclear fuel division, TVEL Fuel Company, is the current supplier of TVS – 2 M fuel for the two VVER 1,000 MWe reactors generating power in the Kudankulam Nuclear Power Project (KKNPP).
- This fuel has an 18-month fuel cycle, meaning that the reactor has to be stopped for fresh fuel loading every one-and-a-half years.
- TVEL has now offered the more modern Advanced Technology Fuel (ATF), whose fuel cycle is a whopping 24 months.
Benefits of the move
- This fuel will ensure more efficiency and additional power generation due to the prolonged operation of the reactor.
- It will result in sizable savings of the foreign exchange need to buy fresh fuel assemblies from Russia.
What is the Nuclear Fuel Cycle?
- The nuclear fuel cycle consists of front-end steps that prepare uranium for use in nuclear reactors and back-end steps to safely manage, prepare, and dispose of used—or spent—but still highly radioactive spent nuclear fuel.
- Uranium is the most widely used fuel by nuclear power plants for nuclear fission.
- Nuclear power plants use a certain type of uranium—U-235—as fuel because its atoms are easily split apart.
- Although uranium is about 100 times more common than silver, U-235 is relatively rare at just over 0.7% of natural uranium.
Steps involved in fuel enrichment
- Uranium concentrate is separated from uranium ore at uranium mills or from a slurry at in-situ leaching facilities.
- It is then processed in conversion and enrichment facilities, which increases the level of U-235 to 3%–5% for commercial nuclear reactors, and made into reactor fuel pellets and fuel rods in reactor fuel fabrication plants.
- Nuclear fuel is loaded into reactors and used until the fuel assemblies become highly radioactive and must be removed for temporary storage and eventual disposal.
- Chemical processing of spent fuel material to recover any remaining product that could undergo fission again in a new fuel assembly is technically feasible.
Back2Basics: Uranium Enrichment
- It is a process that is necessary to create an effective nuclear fuel out of mined uranium.
- It involves increasing the percentage of uranium-235 which undergoes fission with thermal neutrons.
- Nuclear fuel is mined from naturally occurring uranium ore deposits and then isolated through chemical reactions and separation processes.
- These chemical processes used to separate the uranium from the ore are not to be confused with the physical and chemical processes used to enrich the uranium.
Why is enrichment carried out?
- Uranium found in nature consists largely of two isotopes, U-235 and U-238.
- Natural uranium contains 0.7% of the U-235 isotope.
- The remaining 99.3% is mostly the U-238 isotope which does not contribute directly to the fission process (though it does so indirectly by the formation of fissile isotopes of plutonium).
- The production of energy in nuclear reactors is from the ‘fission’ or splitting of the U-235 atoms since it is the main fissile isotope of uranium.
- Naturally occurring uranium does not have a high enough concentration of Uranium-235 at only about 0.72% with the remainder being Uranium-238.
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