Washington, May 31 : Researchers at Auburn University (AU) in the US are developing new technologies to store and recycle nuclear waste.
The researchers at AU's Center for Actinide Science are trying to find chemical compounds that would combine with radioactive elements, allowing them to be safely stored without risk of radiation leakage.
The nuclear material would be recycled for future use in energy production.
Nuclear power plants use uranium fuel rods to heat water, which produces steam and drives a turbine that generates electricity. Spent fuel rods are highly radioactive and must be stored safely in water and later in metal casings for centuries until the radiation level decreases.
Auburn is one of five universities in the country with the capability and expertise to conduct research into nuclear waste storage for recycling, according to Tom Albrecht-Schmitt, center director AU, who added that the Department of Energy is considering building a nuclear fuel recycling facility.
"We want to make materials that will sequester radioactive elements and that will be resistant to radiation damage and to environmental factors such as air and water," he said.
According to Albrecht-Schmitt, the key is to carefully select, and in some cases design, an appropriate crystalline lattice that tightly binds radioactive elements with non-radioactive particles.
A crystalline lattice is the three-dimensional framework of how an atom attaches to another atom.
Those used by Albrecht-Schmitt make it difficult for the radioactive elements to break away even under intense radiation or by chemical means.
This method would be for "short-term" storage of radioactive waste that rapidly decays over the course of a few centuries.
Another goal is to develop materials to store the waste for the long term, possibly thousands of years, which he says will be challenging with current technology.
"A nuclear plant's cooling water is now stored as waste," said Professor Anne Gorden of the Department of Chemistry at AU. "If we can extract the radioactive elements, then we could drastically reduce the amount of waste water that needs to be stored," she added.
Gorden's research uses nitrogen- and oxygen-containing compounds as the basis to extract the radioactive elements, which she says would allow the radioactive particles to be incinerated with reduced impact on the environment.
"The country's research into nuclear waste storage for recycling is in the very early stages," said Albrecht-Schmitt. "It will take 10 to 20 years to apply new research that is being developed now, but we have to make the discoveries today," he added.