According to the Chattanooga Times Free Press, Oak Ridge National Laboratory is working on a chemical process to separate highly radioactive spent fuel to recover unused energy. The process is referred to as nuclear waste recycling, and although recycling nuclear fuel might seem like a no-brainer, virtually all commercial nuclear power plants in the U.S. use a once-and-done “once through” system.
“Recycling the waste is a better strategy than storing it,” Sherrell Greene, director of ORNL’s nuclear technology programs, says, noting that 90 percent of the spent fuel’s energy remains in what now is treated as highly radioactive waste. (The reason for not using more of the fuel is that radioactivity also causes changes to the fuel rods and the formation of materials that contaminate the process and reduce efficiency.
Some nuclear reprocessing technologies have been used in France, Japan and Russia, but they have been rejected several times in the United States over the past three decades.
Researchers are hoping to develop a method to extract the usable portion of the spent fuel without the inherent security risks of isolating plutonium.
Current reprocessing leaves behind highly poisonous nuclear waste. This waste, however, degrades in tens of years instead of tens of thousands of years, which makes the need for very long-term storage less acute, experts say.
Researchers, however, also say they are trying to scale up techniques to transmute radioactive elements with long half-lives to ones with much shorter ones.
For more information on this topic, see John Marra’s excellent video, “A New Paradigm for Nuclear Waste Management.”