In 2010, New Mexico became one of the nuclear fuel sources for the existing light water reactor (LWR) fleet here in the United States. Unfortunately, there are financial reasons and political forces that are causing these LWR power plants to shutter prematurely with many decades of productive electricity generation.
These closures put a lot of pressure on the Federal Administration’s non-fossil fuel replacements policy to meet climate change management requirements by 2050. Wind and solar with battery backup has failed to provide consistent electricity to the national grid so far and doesn’t appear to be a realistic strategy.
Fortunately, there is a future source of clean energy, advanced molten salt reactor (MSR), with worldwide development efforts to replace all existing electricity generation; coal power generating stations, combined-cycle natural gas power stations, wind and solar industrial farms, biomass causing deforestation and even decommissioned LWR nuclear power plants.
These MSR’s are going to use a molten salt (liquid) fuel stream. The supply chain for that fuel starts with all the solid spent uranium fuel rods left unused from the last 60 years of LWR operations. All that spent solid fuel is currently stored in a canister/cask on concrete pads at each nuclear power plant site.
The conversion process to convert solid fuel rods to a molten salt solution requires a facility. This facility would remove the zirconium cladding, exposing the ceramic uranium pellets to be chopped up into a sandy texture, and put into a vat of molten chlorine to chemically separate the impurities (noble gases and noble metals), leaving just the uranium, plutonium, and fission products. These three radioactive materials are the base components of the molten salt fuel source for the molten chloride salt fast reactors (MCSFR).
The conversion facility should be consolidated and centralized to minimize cost. There are two types of molten salt fuels, 1) seed fuel (mostly plutonium) for a new startup reactor and 2) feed fuel (mostly uranium) continuously fed into the MCSFR without shutting down the reactor. These MSR’s can run 40 to 60 years and would be recycled and refurbish for another 60 years without any nuclear fuel waste to manage and store.
There are two practical places to manufacture the molten salt nuclear fuel. The National Lab network because they are already licensed to handle the plutonium for the seed fuel and at a consolidated interim storage facility like HI-STORE CISF for the feed fuel (different NRC license). HI-STORE could be THE STORE for nuclear fuel and possibly to export it to other countries. Both seed and feed nuclear fuels can come from New Mexico.
HI-STORE CISF is a proposed $3 billion capital investment in New Mexico without subsidies from the state will generate $24 million per year in taxes and fees, as well as very good-paying jobs in construction and operation. HI-STORE CISF is on 300 acres of the 1,000-acre storage site in Lea County.
There is plenty of room to also build a molten salt conversion facility at the same location so that fuel can be processed on an “as-needed basis” or inventoried in subsurface silos, just like the solid fuel rods are. This conversion facility has the potential to generate a multi-billion dollar industry.
Nuclear fuel storage and nuclear fuel conversion would complement the existing WIPP nuclear waste storage plant and the existing URENCO Enrichment Plant with its stored depleted uranium, just down the road. Nuclear will be the future energy source here on earth, and HI-STORE could be the molten fuel source depot for interplanetary travels and colonization.