How much energy is contained in existing US nuclear waste?

By Dr. Nick Touran, Ph.D., P.E., 2023-04-29 , Reading time: 2 minutes

Since nuclear waste is recyclable, it’s good to know how much energy is available in the waste that currently exists.

The 2017 there were ~80,000 tonnes of spent fuel, increasing at at rate of ~9500 MT per 3.5 years [EIA]. That means that in 2023 there are about 96,500 tonnes of spent fuel.

units -1 "80000 + 9500/3.5 * (2023-2017)

Breeder reactors with full multi-recycle can extract around 800 GW-day/tonne of thermal energy, so there are 6670 exajoules of usable energy in the US waste.

units -1 "96500 tonnes * 800 GW*day/tonne" "exajoules"

Considering that the world uses about 600 exajoules of primary energy per year [BP statistical review 2022], this means that nuclear waste in the USA contains as much as 11.1 years of total world primary energy (not just electricity).

units -1 "96500 tonnes * 800 GW*day/tonne / (600 exajoules/yr)" "years"

However, most reactors don’t use 100% of the heat they make. A breeder reactor can convert about 39% of its heat to electricity. The rest of the heat could be used for district heating, industrial processes, hydrogen production, desalination, etc., but this is currently uncommon, and we’ll never be able to capture 100% of the energy released in a nuclear core.

Looking purely at electricity, the world generated about 28,500 TW-hour of electricity in 2021 [BP 2022]. Thus, nuclear waste in the USA could be used to generated 100% of world electricity for 25 years.

units -1 "96500 tonnes * 800 GW*day/tonne* 0.39 / (28500 TW*hour/yr)" "years"

The USA uses 93 exajoules of primary energy per year, so the US waste contains 72 years of the USA’s energy.

units -1 "96500 tonnes * 800 GW*day/tonne / (93 exajoules/yr)" "years"

Just looking at US electricity (4406 TW-hour/year [BP 2022]), the US waste could make 100% of US electricity for 164 years.

units -1 "96500 tonnes * 800 GW*day/tonne* 0.39 / (4406 TW*hour/yr)" "years"

Note that these scenarios would require an established fleet of breeder reactors to actually achieve, all of which would need to be already started up, which would require a huge amount of fissile material that is not included here. Actually ramping up such a fleet is generally expected to start from the much smaller amount of plutonium contained in the fuel and ramp up gradually over decades.

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