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Researchers Crack 50-Year-Old Nuclear Waste Problem

Researchers from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill have cracked a 50-year-old nuclear waste problem that will make nuclear storage much safer moving forward.

Published in the journal Science, the results of the researchers’ study shows how they adapted a technology originally intended for solar energy in order to selectively remove the radioactive chemical element americium from nuclear waste pools.

“In order to solve the nuclear waste problem, you have to solve the americium problem,” said Tom Meyer, Arey Distinguished Professor of Chemistry at UNC’s College of Arts and Sciences, who led the study. According to the University, “americium doesn’t have the same recognition as a plutonium and uranium, but researchers have been trying to remove it from nuclear waste for decades.” Now, Meyer and his team have managed to remove the radioactive element without encountering any problems downstream which hinder the removal.

Specifically, Meyer and Chris Dares, who spearheaded the project, made use of a technology that is closely related to one used by Meyer in his work at the UNC Energy Frontier Research Center of Solar Fuels to tear electrons from water molecules. Instead of tearing electrons from water, however, the pair used the technology to tear electrons from americium, which despite requiring twice as much energy input as splitting water, results in removing the three electrons from americium, which makes the element behave like plutonium and uranium, and therefore easier to remove using existing technology.

“With a scaled up solution, not only will we no longer have to think about the dangers of storing radioactive waste long-term, but we will have a viable solution to close the nuclear fuel cycle and contribute to solving the world’s energy needs,” said Dares. “That’s exciting.”

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