The reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel could become safer and more efficient in future after researchers found a way to modify the structure of molecules to remove radioactive materials. The research is published in a recent edition of the influential Chemistry – A European Journal and is described by the editors of the journal as being of great significance. Nuclear energy offers a clean, low carbon source of electricity and is becoming a growing part of the energy provision in many countries worldwide. About 10% of the world’s electricity is produced by nuclear power. However, nuclear power stations need fuel to produce electricity and this fuel becomes less efficient over time, and needs to be replaced after approximately five years. Spent fuel is still highly radioactive and generates intense amounts of heat. Before being reprocessed or disposed of, it needs to be submerged in specialist cooling ponds under more than 40 feet of water. The water provides shielding from radioactivity and is continuously cooled to remove the intense heat from the fuel rods. It takes more than a year for the fuel rods to cool to a point where they can be reprocessed to remove the uranium and plutonium elements, which can then be reused as fuel. However, the elements americium, curium and neptunium, which are called the minor actinides, are still present and produce most of the heat and radioactivity of the remaining spent fuel. In addition, these elements remain highly radioactive for approximately 9,000 years, which makes the long-term storage and disposal of spent fuel extremely difficult to manage safely. If these harmful radioactive elements could be removed it would significantly improve the safety and sustainability of nuclear energy, because the remaining spent fuel would remain radioactive for approximately 300 years, which is a much more manageable time frame.
NE Connected 3rd March 2020 read more »