Increased use of nuclear power is being considered as a means of mitigating global warming while meeting future energy demands. However, as with most other energy sources, the benefits of nuclear power come with liabilities. Any substantive discussion of the role of nuclear power in the global energy portfolio requires an understanding of the nuclear fuel cycle.
The fuel cycle is made up of a series of processes that manufacture reactor fuel, burn the fuel in a reactor to generate electricity, and manage the spent reactor fuel (Figure 1). These processes are grouped into three components, the front end, which includes all activities prior to placement of the fuel in the reactor, the service period, when the fuel is converted into energy in the reactor, and the back end, which covers all activities dealing with spent fuel from the reactor. If the spent fuel is sent to storage, the cycle is referred to as open. If it is reprocessed to recover useful components, it is known as closed. The United States employs an open fuel cycle, while France, Russia, China, and Japan reprocess their spent fuel.
Figure 1: The Nuclear Fuel Cycle. Courtesy of © European Nuclear Society, 2003
The components of the cycle are organized as follows within this case study.
The front end
The service period
The back end