The image of nuclear power generation has taken a beating since the Fukushima accident in Japan in March 2011. The public’s perception of atomic energy as a producer of massive amounts of radioactive waste was further entrenched. Decommissioned plants are often seen as highly contaminate sites which must be put beyond use for generations, but for those people who work in the industry this perception is both frustrating and undeserved. Indeed atomic energy can justifiably be labelled a green energy compared to the amount of waste produced by fossil fuel based power generation. And while decommissioned plants do contain radioactive waste of varying degrees, many of the products contaminated can be fully recycled. Decommissioning expert Hans-Uwe Arnold from Areva recently explained the details behind this little known fact in Stainless Steel World.
Last year Areva was awarded a contract to decommission nuclear reactors in Sweden. Corresponding projects are being carried out in France at La Hague, Marcoule and Cadarache, and dismantling work is being done in the decommissioning of the German nuclear power stations Stade and Würgassen.
The fuel pool of the nuclear power plant Gundremmingen
Nuclear power stations contain a huge amount of stainless steel in the form of pipes, valves, vessels, condensers, heat exchangers etc. Almost all of this can be fully recycled. “Several thousands of tonner per facility can be almost completely reused after decontamination” Mr Arnold explained. Titanium is another valuable material which is recovered and recycled from condensers.
“Following decontamination, well over 90% of the waste is released,” explains Mr Arnold. “This means we test each individual part to determine whether the radiation is not higher than the natural level. Then the component can be either disposed of as normal waste or reused. Only a small proportion of the remaining components must be placed in the final disposal site, some parts of the reactor pressure vessel.”
Many reactors across Europe are approaching the end to their planned life span so decommissioning activities are likely to increase. You can read more about how the corrosion resistant alloys included in these plants are being recycled in the full article.