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Spent Nuclear Fuel: A Valuable Resource—Not a Waste

August 1, 2022

Did you know that more than 90% of the potential energy that exists in fuel rods when they’re loaded into commercial nuclear reactors still remains in the fuel after five years of operation? Well, that’s true, according to the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) Office of Nuclear Energy. Why that’s a big deal is because most reactors are refueled on an 18-month or 24-month cycle, with about a third of the rods replaced each refueling outage. That means a typical fuel rod spends from four-and-a-half years to six years inside a reactor. Therefore, there’s a lot of unused nuclear fuel in “spent nuclear fuel.” Kelsey Adkisson, science communications professional with the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL), likened it to “filling up your gas tank with 10 gallons of gas, driving just far enough to burn a half gallon and discarding the rest. Then, repeat.”

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