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Marine Sciences Division

Nuclear Energy

PNNL Uranium From Seawater Program

PNNL Uranium From Seawater Program

For nuclear power to remain a sustainable energy source, economically viable nuclear fuel must be available. Globally, seawater contains more than 4 billion tons of dissolved uranium, enough to supply reactors for thousands of years. The challenge is the low concentration of uranium in seawater - 3.3 parts per billion.

MSL initiated a marine testing and characterization program with the objective to evaluate advanced absorbent materials for the extraction of uranium using natural seawater. The uranium from seawater program is being conducted by the U.S. Department of Energy, Office of Nuclear Energy, Fuel Resources Program, in coordination with Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) for adsorbent synthesis and characterization, and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory for characterization of the thermodynamics and kinetics of adsorption.

MSL has a specialized ambient seawater delivery system for material testing and specialized analytical capabilities for determination of trace elements in natural seawater at part per trillion levels. Marine testing of adsorbent fibers is being conducted in packed columns using flow-through filtered natural seawater and in flumes in which temperature and flow-rate (linear velocity) are controlled at realistic marine conditions. Measurements of the adsorption of uranium and other elements from seawater as a function of time onto the adsorbent materials are used to determine the adsorbent capacity and adsorption rate (kinetics) of uranium and other elements.

Other investigations currently underway at MSL include:

  • Studies to assess the impact of biofouling on adsorption capacity
  • Investigations on the toxicity of adsorbent materials
  • Investigations on the environmental impact of the deployment of a braided farm adsorbent in the coastal environment
  • Studies to characterize the binding of uranium to the amidoxime-based polymeric adsorbent using advanced imaging techniques at the Environmental and Molecular Science Laboratory
  • Development of thermodynamic equilibrium models to predict the solution speciation of uranium in seawater and binding of uranium and other elements to amidoxime-based polymeric adsorbent.

Environmental Licensing

Environmental Licensing

Nuclear energy maintains a strong role in the continuing diversification of U.S. energy sources. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) regulates new nuclear development with the mission of protecting people and the environment. Applications for new nuclear permits and licenses require careful siting, environmental, and safety reviews.

MSL scientists and engineers provide subject matter expertise in a number of key topic areas during reviews of early site permits, combined construction permits and operating licenses, and license renewals. These topic areas include aquatic ecosystems, commercial and recreational fisheries, terrestrial and wetlands ecosystems, surface water hydrology, non-radiological human health, and nonradioactive waste management. MSL hydrologists also provide expertise in external flooding such as from storm surge, tsunamis, riverine floods, and dam failures in support of safety reviews.

MSL scientists inform NRC's decision on whether to issue a combined construction permit and operating licenses for new nuclear power plants. MSL staff were key contributors to the environmental review of the combined construction permit and operating licenses for two new reactors at V.C. Summer Nuclear Station—the first new licenses to be granted by the NRC in decades.

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