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See Inside December 2005

Smarter Use of Nuclear Waste

Fast-neutron reactors could extract much more energy from recycled nuclear fuel, minimize the risks of weapons proliferation and markedly reduce the time nuclear waste must be isolated

Despite long-standing public concern about the safety of nuclear energy, more and more people are realizing that it may be the most environmentally friendly way to generate large amounts of electricity. Several nations, including Brazil, China, Egypt, Finland, India, Japan, Pakistan, Russia, South Korea and Vietnam, are building or planning nuclear plants. But this global trend has not as yet extended to the U.S., where work on the last such facility began some 30 years ago.

If developed sensibly, nuclear power could be truly sustainable and essentially inexhaustible and could operate without contributing to climate change. In particular, a relatively new form of nuclear technology could overcome the principal drawbacks of current methods--;namely, worries about reactor accidents, the potential for diversion of nuclear fuel into highly destructive weapons, the management of dangerous, long-lived radioactive waste, and the depletion of global reserves of economically available uranium. This nuclear fuel cycle would combine two innovations: pyrometallurgical processing (a high-temperature method of recycling reactor waste into fuel) and advanced fast-neutron reactors capable of burning that fuel. With this approach, the radioactivity from the generated waste could drop to safe levels in a few hundred years, thereby eliminating the need to segregate waste for tens of thousands of years.

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