Molecule discovery could enable nuclear waste to be stored more safely

The controversial problem of storing some of the most radioactive elements of nuclear waste could be close to being solved.

Scientists have discovered a class of molecules that can selectively extract extremely radioactive components – ‘minor actinides’ – that remain after spent fuel has been reprocessed, making the eventual waste far less radiotoxic.

The minor actinides can potentially be fed back into nuclear reactors, providing extra energy and, in turn, be converted to non-radioactive products, according to the University of Reading researchers.

The UK nuclear power industry produces about 10,000 megawatts of power each year. Although the vast bulk of the spent fuel from a reactor can be reprocessed and fed back into the fuel cycle, a residue, consisting of corrosion products, lanthanides and minor actinides, must be sent to storage. For every 500kg of spent fuel, there is 15kg of waste, of which the minor actinides, such as americium, curium and neptunium, constitute less than 1kg. However, these present an extreme hazard as they are intensely radioactive and long-lived nuclides that cause serious concern when it comes to storing them for more than 100,000 years.

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