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Nuclear Safeguards Education Portal

Introduction to the Nuclear Fuel Cycle

Texas A&M University Research Reactor
Texas A&M University Research Reactor 

Nuclear reactors are used throughout the world for power production, research, production of medical and industrial isotopes, propulsion, and for production of nuclear and radiological materials for military purposes. These reactors are supplied by nuclear fuel that must be fabricated and disposed of. The nuclear fuel cycle is the system that encompasses all activities and facilities related to the nuclear fuel used in nuclear reactors. A nuclear fuel cycle consists of a set of nuclear installations interconnected by streams of nuclear material. Thus, it follows the progression of nuclear material (principally nuclear fuel) through a series of different steps. The nuclear fuel cycle consists of three main stages:

  1. Front End. This is the stage in which fuel is mined and prepared for use.
  2. Reactor (or Transmuter). This is the stage in which fuel is irradiated to produce power, radiation, or additional nuclear and radiological materials that serve some purpose.
  3. Back End. This is the stage in which the irradiated nuclear material is managed. This could include disposal of this material or reprocessing and recycling of the material for additional use in another reactor (or transmuter).

We will discuss each of these steps in more detail throughout this module.

The generic commercial nuclear fuel cycle is shown in the figure below:

The generic commercial nuclear fuel cycle

In this figure, the mining, milling, conversion, enrichment, and fuel fabrication steps compose the front-end. The transportation, reprocessing, and disposal steps compose the back-end. This fuel cycle is considered to be a "closed fuel cycle" in that recycled material from the back-end is fed back into the front-end. This closed fuel cycle can be an efficient use of natural resources but is only possessed by a very small number of states. Versions of this closed commerical fuel cycle exist in France, the UK, Japan, Russia, and, to some extent, in India.  China is also working to develop reprocessing capabilities.  

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