This article started out as a piece about the 10 countries that generate the most nuclear waste annually. Unfortunately, the most recent data is from 1997 (Ukraine, United Kingdom, France, United States, Canada, Germany, India, Lithuania, Italy and Bulgaria).
Approaching the question from the other end -- which countries generate the most nuclear power? – might get us closer to an answer. Business Insider analyzed data from the United Nations’ International Atomic Energy Agency and came up with a top 10 list: United States, France, Russia, South Korea, Germany, China, Canada, Ukraine, United Kingdom and Sweden.
But those nuclear power powerhouses aren’t necessarily the biggest nuclear waste producers. That’s because some of them -- France, the United Kingdom and the United States included -- recycle their nuclear waste.
Surprised to hear that nuclear waste is recyclable? Not only can the waste be re-used to create energy, but doing so greatly reduces the half-life of the elements involved.
Depending on the method, the waste could go from being toxic to humans for hundreds of thousands of years to just a few decades, according to GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy’s technology chief Eric Loewen.
Nuclear power is a much cleaner form of energy than fossil fuels, but the disposal of nuclear waste has always presented serious environmental and health issues. Even storing it is politically controversial.
Recycling more fuel could go a long way toward changing people’s negative attitudes toward nuclear power.
Related Article: The Year's Best Uranium News (So Far)
Caption: This is what nuclear reactors eat for breakfast. The fuel is made from stacked up ceramic pellets enclosed inside metal rods.
Not only does recycling nuclear waste make its disposal safer, it could also make energy production more efficient. The initial use of the fuel that feeds a nuclear reactor – mostly uranium (or thorium), oxygen and steel – only consumes about five or six percent of the available energy in these elements. By recycling the nuclear waste, “fast reactors” could use up to 95 percent of the available energy.
These reactors aren’t new technology. In fact, the very first reactor built in the United States was a fast reactor. Becoming operational in 1951, the reactor was designed to reuse the uranium. The reuse was important at the time because uranium was thought to be very rare. Once geologists realized that uranium was actually quite plentiful on Earth, efficient nuclear reactors went by the wayside – not recycling the waste is much cheaper, at least in terms of production cost.
The early fast reactors also had safety concerns – they used sodium, which is “highly combustible and reacts violently with water.” New technology is making this concern truly a thing of the past, however. GE Hitachi is utilizing stainless steel that won’t corrode along with leak-detection systems to remove the dangers that old fast reactors experienced.
So, how exactly does nuclear waste get recycled? (How much do you remember from the last chemistry class you took?) In nature, uranium is found as two isotopes: U-238, which is common, and U-235, which is more rare. Traditional reactors consider U-238 useless and are fueled with U-235, so when the reactor runs low on 235, it has to be replaced, even though there’s still lots of 238 left in the fuel cells. But this U-238 is actually what makes recycling possible – so it’s a win-win; the U-238 is more abundant and it’s recyclable.
During a nuclear reaction, the U-238 absorbs a neutron. (Remember neutrons? They’re the neutral particle that exists in the nucleus of an atom). Anyway, when the U-238 absorbs a neutron, “it goes through a series of nuclear reactions within a few days and turns into a very split-able isotope of Plutonium, Pu-239.” This Pu-239 can be used in nuclear reactors pretty much the same way that the U-235 is used – so converting the U-238 to Pu-239 means that the U-238 is no longer just a useless waste product of nuclear energy production. For a full explanation, check this out.
Related Article: Will Floating Power Plants Tame The Nuclear NIMBYs?
Caption: How Uranium 238 becomes Plutonium 239
Using fission to split uranium atoms to create heat that turns water to steam which powers turbines (which is how a nuclear reactor works, by the way) will never be a risk-free prospect. But recycling nuclear waste will enable reactors to get the maximum amount of energy available from their fuel while making the waste that ultimately results safer, much more quickly.
Nuclear waste recycling: the atomic version of hauling your glass bottles and newspapers to the curb.
By Amy Gleich of Oilprice.com