Belgium launches project to develop metal smelter

15 February 2024

The European Commission has given approval for a project by Belgium's Nuclear Research Centre (SCK-CEN) and the Centre for Metallurgical Research (CRM) to develop an advanced smelter for metal generated through the dismantling of nuclear power plants.

CRM Group CEO Joeri Neutjens (left) and SCK-CEN CEO Peter Baeten (right) signed the research partnership agreement (Image: SCK-CEN)

Metals removed during the dismantling of nuclear power plants fall into three main categories: most of the metal is free of any residual radioactivity and can therefore go through a conventional recycling process; another portion is too contaminated to be processed or recycled and is categorised as nuclear waste and sent for disposal; while the third and final part has a limited level of radioactivity, allowing it to be recycled within dedicated infrastructure.

In June last year, the Belgian government allocated EUR13.5 million (USD14.5 million) in funding under the Belgian Recovery and Resilience Plan to the SMELD (which stands for State-of-the-art Metal Melting Limiting waste during D&D) project. This project aims to develop a facility that will enable larger quantities of metal emanating from dismantling to be recycled. It focuses on material that is too radioactive to be recycled immediately, but not radioactive enough to be disposed of as radioactive waste.

"That particular category actually accounts for considerable volumes," said CRM Group CEO Joeri Neutjens. "We believe that by putting in place the right technologies and installations, we will be able to give that metal a second life."

With the European Commission now approving the investment, SCK-CEN and CRM have signed a research partnership, allowing them to launch the project.

The project has two components: firstly, fundamental research activities performed by SCK-CEN in Mol, in collaboration with CRM in Liège, followed by feasibility studies. Using a laboratory fusion furnace, this will enable research into the movements of certain radioisotopes during the fusion process and will help determine parameters/methods for controlling the movements of these isotopes. The project will also include feasibility studies, industrial research and fusion infrastructure, and even larger-scale research with one or more industrial partners, to be selected by SCK-CEN.

The intention is that SMELD will lead to an upgraded form of the technology being used in today's large-scale melting plants. By capturing most of the radioisotopes during melting and separating them from the metal, these plants are already bringing about a dramatic reduction in the quantity of radioactive waste. Nevertheless, some radioisotopes are difficult to capture using the techniques currently available.

"We believe that still more can be got out of the process and have made it our target to ensure that the new melting furnace is more effective at isolating those residual radioisotopes as well larger quantities of metal can then be recycled and re-used," Neutjens said.

The furnace will undergo an extensive development process, in which advanced thermodynamic simulations will be combined with laboratory-scale provisional feasibility and optimisation tests. The initial part of that process is being carried out at CRM Group using non-radioactive materials and will be followed by small-scale tests at SCK-CEN using radioisotopes. The two project partners will then scale up the development into a genuine, advanced processing furnace. They intend to complete the work to construct the furnace by 2026.

"In Europe, more than 70 nuclear reactors have already closed down and it is estimated that dozens more will follow in the coming years," said Guido Mulier, a dismantling expert at SCK-CEN. "It therefore won't be long before they become due for dismantling. Recycling and re-using the maximum quantity of materials makes it possible to reduce the ecological footprint of dismantling. And that is what this project is all about: a desire to create a circular economy in dismantling."

He added: "Any country commencing a dismantling project stands to benefit from improved recycling techniques. We are paving the way towards an installation of that type, the commercial operation of which will ultimately be undertaken by an industrial partner. SCK-CEN and CRM will reserve the right to continue carrying out research in that installation as a means of optimising existing techniques, but also new ones."

Researched and written by World Nuclear News