Could Nuclear Waste Be a Future Energy Resource?
Last week MIT hosted a panel of nuclear power industry experts to address nuclear waste recycling and disposal options. Considered by many analysts to be the chief barrier to building a new generation of nuclear power plants, the debate around what to do with high-level radioactive waste from nuclear power plants continues to be the industry's hot button issue.
Experts suggest that the current system of storing waste in dry casks on nuclear power sites is still a viable option for several decades to come, but others point to the fact that the 104 US nuclear reactors will generate over 105,000 tons of waste in their life cycle, which would require more than 1,700 acres to store the highly radioactive material. With the Obama administration's recent decision to stop plans for the Yucca Mountain, Nevada nuclear storage facility, the question of where to store nuclear waste continues to loom large.
However, an alternative solution has surfaced in the debate, pointing to the potential energy source lost in all the nuclear waste. Only about 1 percent of the raw nuclear material's energy is used in the present "once through" fuel cycle, which Charles Forsberg, director of the Fuel Cycle Study in MIT's Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering suggests could be reprocessed to make use of the left over energy.
Does the technology exist to extract the residual energy? Not yet, but research is underway to determine if reusing nuclear waste as fuel is an option for generating more energy and reducing the toxic waste associated with nuclear processing.