A Promising New Technology for Treating Nuclear Waste

Nuclear power is one of the most viable options for replacing fossil fuels as the main electricity generator in the U.S. Some countries, such as France, obtain as much as 78% of their total electricity from nuclear power [1]. The U.S. on the other hand, only derives about 20% of its total electricity from nuclear power [2]. Some of the main reasons nuclear power is not more prominent in the U.S. are because of worries about radiation exposure in the event of reactor malfunctions (especially after the Japan nuclear disaster in 2011 [3]), and because of uncertainty about what to do with spent nuclear fuel (nuclear waste).

Luckily, scientists at Sandia National Labs are making promising steps towards alleviating both of those concerns. The researchers claim they might have developed a technology that could remove radioactive gases from spent nuclear fuel. The technology involves tiny things called metal-organic frameworks (MOFs). The purpose of the MOFs is to attract and capture volatile radioactive iodine particles from nuclear waste [4].

Metal Organic Framework (MOF) Photo Courtesy of: http://images.sciencedaily.com/2012/01/120124140319.jpg

If this technology comes to fruition, the benefit would be two-fold. First, the MOFs could help with the reprocessing of nuclear waste (separating re-fissionable material from waste in spent fuel). The re-fissionable fuel would be reacted again to extract more energy from the fuel (some countries, such as France, Russia and India already reprocess fuel using different methods). Also, with the re-fissionable fuel no longer considered “waste,” the total volume of high-level nuclear waste to be disposed of would be lessened. Finally, in the event of a nuclear disaster, the MOFs could be used to help clean up from the accident [5].

I personally think nuclear power is much cleaner and better than burning traditional fossil fuels. I understand the concerns about radiation exposure in the event of (rare) disasters, and the issue of to do with nuclear waste. Nevertheless, I think the benefits outweigh the risks, and a greater percentage of our electricity should come from nuclear power. I think that if a technology such as the one described above really does work, and can be put to widespread use, opponents of nuclear power will have a much harder time arguing their case.

[1] http://www.iaea.org/newscenter/pressreleases/2007/prn200719.html

[2] EIA:

[3] http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/asia_pacific/after-japan-nuclear-disaster-a-wasteland/2011/11/16/gIQAt7ZTcN_story.html

[4] http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/01/120124140319.htm

[5] http://energy.sandia.gov/?p=8121



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5 responses to “A Promising New Technology for Treating Nuclear Waste

  1. dyank

    Nuclear power has tremendous potential as a future provider of energy in this country. Unfortunately, the public is so ill-informed about this technology that all they know are the devastating effects when nuclear power ‘goes wrong.’ Questions concerning what to do with nuclear waste also hinder the possibilities for nuclear power.
    The truth about most nuclear accidents is that they are the result of one of two circumstances: either operator error or the result of a natural disaster. Famous incidences such as Three Mile Island and Chernobyl are the unfortunate consequence of inattentive operators in the former case and disabling of safety features in the latter. Incidences such as these capture the public’s imagination in such a devastating way that nuclear power has a difficult time overcoming the bad press. What the public should be aware of is that the United States Navy has successful and safely operated nuclear reactors for over 50 years without a single nuclear accident.
    The question of what to do with the waste product is one that cannot be overcome with fancy safety features and highly trained nuclear operators. Nuclear waste is dangerous and must be disposed of properly in ways that does not cause harm to the public or the environment. The technology and research described in ‘A Promising New Technology for Treating Nuclear Waste’ is crucial to nuclear power’s future. Without an effective means of handling and disposing of the radioactive byproducts of nuclear fission, this clean source of energy does not have much of a future in the mind of the American public. Technologies such as those in the article are crucial to the future of nuclear power and to the future of energy in the United States.

  2. veggeto121

    Nice post ENERGYMAN12. I agree that nuclear power is one of the most viable options for replacing fossil fuels, and I believe it should be more seriously considered than some alternate energy solutions such as wind power. Having said that, I don’t think this discovery will do much to change the U.S.’ mind about reprocessing spent nuclear fuel; while this invention would reduce the worries about radiation exposure, the main issue really is the concern about terrorists obtaining raw materials after reprocessing to make nuclear weapons, as well as the threat of general nuclear proliferation[1]. This is why President Jimmy Carter outlawed spent nuclear fuel reprocessing in 1977.

    Since then, the issue has become largely political, with anti-nuclear citizens shouting NIMBY (Not In My BackYard) about what to do with the waste. In 2006, President George W. Bush nearly overturned the nuclear reprocessing ban, justifying it by saying that the new technology he was funding and the fact that it will be reprocessed in the U.S. makes it much less likely that Plutonium could be obtained by terrorists [2]. His administration also noted, as ENERGYMAN12 mentions, that reprocessing would “cut the amount of waste that would have to be disposed of at the proposed repository” under Yucca Mountain. In 2010, President Obama cut funding for Yucca Mountain out of the 2011 budget, as he had promised in his election campaign, effectively killing it [3]. This, despite the fact that $10.5 billion has already been spent on the project and that Obama is a proponent of nuclear power, announcing $8.3 billion of government loan guarantees for 2 nuclear reactors in Georgia on February 2010 [3].

    Until what really seems like political games stop, no real progress will be made in a highly promising power generation option. It seems like the scientists and engineers are up to the challenge, but their efforts are being curtailed by political interests, some justified by facts and others more by fear.

    [1] http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn8639-us-may-overturn-nuclear-fuel-reprocessing-ban.html
    [2] http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn8639-us-may-overturn-nuclear-fuel-reprocessing-ban.html
    [3] http://blogs.reuters.com/great-debate/2010/03/05/obama-politics-and-nuclear-waste/

  3. veggeto121

    Any prior mention of reference 3 before this edit refers to the Reuters article.

    Edit: 2nd paragraph, add to end
    “According to the New York Times, a study by the U.S. GAO (Government Accountability Office) found that Steven Chu’s decision to terminate the Yucca Mountain program was ‘made for policy reasons, not technical or safety reasons. ‘ Chu reportedly only stated that an alternative option to the facility should be explored. Dr. Chu is a Nobel-prize winning physicist that was appointed Secretary of Energy by President Obama in January 2009 [3]”

    Edit: Reference 2 should be Reuters,
    Reference 3: http://www.nytimes.com/gwire/2011/05/10/10greenwire-gao-death-of-yucca-mountain-caused-by-politica-36298.html?pagewanted=all

  4. before reading this article i’m against neuclear power. because of it amful radiation. the lateset technology MOF may use nuclear power more safly. thanks for the article.

    latest technology news

  5. altheokay

    Along the lines of some of the previous comments, from what I can find, the major issue with this is the threat of nuclear terrorism (look at this article by the Union of Concerned Scientists [1]). This goes into a bit of a rant of how leaving the spent material in highly radioactive tanks, it makes it harder to steal… So is the assumption that if we started reprocessing fuel, nuclear material would suddenly become no big deal and we wouldn’t notice some missing?

    I find that hard to wrap my head around. Besides that, the article makes mention of approximately 250 tons of civil plutonium stores that already exist, and that a US reprocessing program would triple that amount to 750 tons, opening the door for the terrorists presumably. Now that’s all fine and good, but I think what is missed here is that there are already 250 tons of the stuff sitting in storage!! Are terrorists only capable of stealing from America? Considering there are already countries with established reprocessing programs, and I haven’t heard of any plutonium being stolen from France or India yet, so this seems like a pretty shallow argument.

    All that being said, it seems to me that if you can get past that mindset, the MOF technology you wrote about may be great for reprocessing and alleviating some of the other issues surrounding nuclear energy. I understand the inherent cleanliness of nuclear, and the energy density, etc., but I am still yet to hear anyone give me a good reason not to be concerned with burying radioactive waste (I mean it is literally just burying the problem). This same article says (positively mind you) that our current waste disposal plan should last us another 50 years…That puts me at 75, and I plan to stick around awhile longer than that, so that doesn’t sound so great to me.

    Seems like this could help kill 2 birds with 1 stone. A technology that would allow us to re-use the waste stream AND reduce the risk of radiation effects? Sounds good to me.

    Last little odd note here. The article also claims that re-processing would actually increase the volume of waste twentyfold or more…I’d love to see how that works…


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