Can nuclear waste be recycled?

Millions of dollars in funding for an idea that may never work

By Alisa Opar

Among the biggest challenges facing the nuclear power industry is figuring out what to do with all the waste. Radioactive leftovers have been piling up for decades, and it’s become clear that the controversial long-term repository at Yucca Mountain, Nevada, isn’t going to solve the problem entirely. The site’s capacity is 70,000 metric tons of radioactive waste; by the end of 2006, nuclear power plants had generated some 56,000 metric tons of spent fuel, and that amount is growing by about 2,000 metric tons each year.

Nuclear power plants generate electricity by splitting uranium to produce heat and drive turbines. After about two years uranium is considered used up, or “spent,” and replaced with fresh fuel. The spent fuel and high-level waste are usually stored at the reactor in special pools, beneath at least 20 feet of water. Those pools, however, are filling up and will reach their limit by 2015, according to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which has led to storage of waste in dry casks at reactor sites.
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