Why Can't We Neutralize Nuclear Waste?

It may take decades to develop the technology necessary to reduce nuclear waste.

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(Richard DeWeese/iStockphoto)

How come, with all our technology and great scientific brains, we can't figure out how to neutralize nuclear waste? What is the problem (in terms a layman can understand)?

Margaret Tabar
Pontiac, Mich.

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The federal government and the nuclear industry figure it will take decades to create the kind of technology that would reduce the volume and radio-toxicity of high-level nuclear waste so that it can be recycled to obtain more energy and improve waste disposal, according to Steve Kraft, senior director of used fuel management at the Nuclear Energy Institute.

The reason no plan has been developed to take care of waste? "It's extremely complicated," said Ed Lyman, senior staff scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists.

"Nuclear waste is a mixture of many different radioactive isotopes, all with specific properties. No one-size-fits-all solution exists to convert those into less hazardous materials," he said.

Lyman said the problem with reprocessing spent nuclear fuel is that it can be hazardous, expensive and time-consuming—taking thousands of years to fully recycle the waste. And there's another big potential problem, Lyman said: Plutonium that can be generated by the process can be used to make a nuclear bomb.

Kraft said that, for now, waste can be safely stored at nuclear power plant sites or central facilities. And no matter what technology is developed in the future, there always will be material that will have to be disposed of in a repository.

Mark Williams
AP Energy Writer
Columbus, Ohio

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