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The rapid photochemical reduction of U(VI) at high uranium concentrations relevant to spent nuclear fuel recycle processes

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Article number104853
<mark>Journal publication date</mark>31/10/2023
<mark>Journal</mark>Progress in Nuclear Energy
Publication StatusPublished
Early online date23/08/23
<mark>Original language</mark>English


An Advanced PUREX process for the recycling of spent nuclear fuel is currently under active development in the UK. Its key aims are to avoid pure separated plutonium at all stages of the process to enhance the level of proliferation resistance, and to achieve a single cycle flowsheet that has a smaller plant footprint with consequent decreases in the capital cost and secondary wastes generated. Addressing these aims, a significant feature of the process is the co-treatment of U and Pu and thus the in situ co-conversion of mixed actinide metal nitrate solutions into oxide powders, suitable for the fabrication of new mixed metal oxide (MOx) fuel. The baseline industrial process for plutonium recovery is by oxalate precipitation; however, in order to quantitatively recover both U and Pu the uranium must be in the U(IV) oxidation state due to the high solubility of U(VI) oxalate. The first stage of this co-conversion, the development of which is reported on here, is the rapid, clean photochemical co-reduction of a mixed U(VI)/Pu(IV) nitrate stream to U(IV)/Pu(III).

Here we describe a study of the reduction of U(VI) in preparation for mixed U(VI)/Pu(IV) reduction trials. Exploiting the photochemistry of U, we demonstrate the convenient and efficient photo-excitation and chemical reduction of U(VI) upon exposure to 407 nm wavelength light in the presence of alcohol-based reductants. Using a purpose built laboratory-scale photochemical reactor, U(VI) solutions of up to process-relevant concentrations of 630 mmol/dm3 (150 g/l) U have been successfully converted to a U(IV) product, achieving a conversion efficiency of ∼98% within 1.5–15 min when using propan-2-ol as a sacrificial reductant. Modelling of the dependence of the rate of U(IV) generation on initial U(VI) concentration reveals the importance of light penetration depth and effective solution mixing in determining the efficiency of the photochemical process at high U-loadings. It also reveals that the photoreduction of U(VI) to U(IV) occurs by two sequential 1-electron reductions: (i) the photochemically driven reduction of UO22+ to UO2+ by propan-2-ol, which itself is oxidised to form an α-hydroxyalkyl radical, immediately followed by (ii) a second chemical reduction of UO22+ to UO2+ and/or UO2+ to U4+ by the so-formed radical. With the addition of a nitrous acid scavenger to prevent re-oxidation of the photochemically generated U(IV), a stable product is maintained indefinitely, and the solution is suitable for subsequent oxalate co-precipitation as part of a MOx fuel fabrication process.