Trainee diaries

Thea studies the recycling of nuclear fuel

Thea Lyseid Authen comes from the Norwegian west coast, more specifically the small town of Kopervik, where you can glimpse Stavanger across the Boknafjord waters. It is difficult to get further west in Norway, and on the other side of the North Sea, Scotland is not much further than the distance between Kopervik and Gothenburg.

Anyone who has been by the sea for some time knows that the climate there is merciless. Salty winds torment houses and buildings all year round, and during winter it is damp, raw, and cold. In other words, it is an extreme environment. An environment that Norway has developed world-leading expertise in mastering. The most prestigious and advanced education you can get in Norway, at least in the technical field, is marine technology. To Norway’s equivalent to Sweden’s KTH Royal Institute of Technology and Chalmers, the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, or NTNU, the competition for spots is fierce.

Thea, who has always been very interested in technologically advanced things, was persuaded to apply to NTNU. After a year, she had gotten enough and dropped out. Partly because she has always combined her interest in technology with an environmental interest, and after completing an education in marine technology, the oil and gas industry is one of the largest employers.

– I had actually intended to move to England to study nuclear technology, but my whole family was skeptical. When I finally left Norway after the year at NTNU, it was a bit of a teenage revolt. I wanted to go my own way, and nuclear technology was the most provocative thing I could choose to read. At the same time, it fit in well with my environmental interest, I wanted to do something that can actually contribute to making the world a better place.


Nuclear fuel recycling makes nuclear power circular

The education she applied for was at the University of Leeds. After four years there, she was offered a job at Sellafield, the British nuclear power complex, but before she even had time to start, she was offered a doctoral position at Chalmers via her supervisor in Leeds.

– When I chose to study nuclear power, my family wondered where I would get a job. Norway is not a nuclear power country, even though there were then two research reactors at IFE (Department of Energy Technology). But I was young and wanted to discover the world. Now I prioritize the proximity to the family higher, something that makes Gothenburg a better fit than England.

Why does one want to recycle nuclear fuel? Thea explains, when you run the fuel through a reactor once, you have only used a few percent of the energy in the uranium. If you recycle and break out more radioactive elements from the fuel, you can use it again.

In addition to then getting more energy out, which means that significantly less mining is required, the radioactive radiation also declines much faster. Instead of storing the fuel for 100,000 years, you can settle for about 1,000 years. That is certainly also a long period of time, but still much more manageable within the framework of human history.


We need more nuclear power researchers

In addition to Thea’s research being exciting, the question also arises as to how it comes about that a young person chooses to devote his life to researching something that politics in both Sweden and Norway has decided should not be part of the energy system of the future. Thea does not see it that way.

– People I meet are feeling increasingly positive about nuclear power, both in Sweden and in Norway. When I tell people what I work with, I get much more positive reactions today than before. I think it has to do with the fact that there in general has been a much greater focus on climate and carbon neutrality than before.

At the same time, there is a crying need for competence. At Chalmers, there are about ten doctoral students doing nuclear power research, and at KTH there are a few more, but in relation to the demand, it is far from enough.


Regulation is important to the future of nuclear power

Thea does not only deal with the technical aspects of nuclear power. As an active member of SKS – the Swedish Nuclear Society, and as a SKS representative in the European Nuclear Society – she also works to influence the political and regulatory conditions for nuclear power for the better.

– Among other things, we have written a consultation response to the EU’s Taxonomy for Sustainable Energy, which we have also had several countries and the nuclear power industry sign, in which we argue that nuclear power should be classified as green. Of course, uranium mining has a strong link to sustainability. That is why I work to ensure that there are clear environmental requirements, regardless of where in the world uranium comes from.

If nuclear power is classified as a green energy source, the probability that investment capital will be attracted to new nuclear power projects increases. This in turn increases the chance that Thea’s research will be of practical use to enable the circular nuclear power of the future.

Thea’s story is both astonishing and self-evident. Amazing, because what are the chances that a person from a small Norwegian town far from the nearest nuclear power plant would be involved in driving development in nuclear power forward? We’re not too surprised, however, because in today’s interconnected and global world, it is the rule rather than the exception that those who think new and change the world come from unexpected contexts.