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Nuclear leftovers: waste not, want not.

Legal and safety disputes have logjammed federal programs to create repositories for the permanent internment of long-lived radioactive wastes. What's a nuclear power plant owner or bomb maker to do while debate over the placement of these "hot" discards drags on?

Consider squashing or "burning" wastes, suggest researchers at two Department of Energy (DOE) facilities.

On Feb. 22, technicians began flattening wastes at DOE's Rocky Flats plant, a former nuclear-weapons facility outside Golden, Colo. Conceptually similar to a kitchen compactor, Rocky Flats' 44-ton trash smasher drives a piston with 2,200 tons of compaction force down upon 35-gallon drums containing plastic, glass, and metal wastes. Resulting "pucks" may take up as little as one-fifth of the waste's initial volume. That's a dramatic reduction for a plant like Rocky Flats, which has enough plutonium-laced wastes to fill 3,000 55-gallon drums.

[This] supercompactor could save the taxpayers millions of dollars in future disposal costs by reducing the total volume of waste," notes Bob Nelson, who manages DOE's Rocky Flats Office.

Argonne (Ill.) National Laboratory is exploring a higher tech solution: recycling long-lived wastes as fuel for a new breed of "inherently safe" reactors (SN: 1/26/85, p.60). In a reactor, some neutrons liberated by fissioning uranium are absorbed by other uranium atoms, transmuting them into heavier elements known as actinides. Because today's commercial reactors cannot "burn" actinides efficiently, these heavy elements accumulate as long-lived wastes - isotopes with half-lives measured in thousands to millions of years. But in Argonne's experimental Integral Fast Reactor (IFR), "we can effectively destroy them," notes IFR project manager Yoon I. Chang.

Having demonstrated a technology for extracting actinides from IFR wastes, Chang says, his team must now prove that recycled actinides will fission efficiently Late last month, they launched a two-year experiment to test just that by placing a small quantity of the actinides americium and neptunium into a fuel bundle that they inserted in an IFR-type reactor core.

If successful, says Charles E. Till, also at Argonne, this experiment "will be the equivalent of burning nuclear garbage." Though his team has thus far demonstrated the ability to recycle actinides from IFR fuels only, Chang says a spin-off program is under way to adapt this technology to the efficient extraction of actinides from commercial reactor wastes.
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Title Annotation:recycling and compacting of radioactive wastes
Publication:Science News
Article Type:Brief Article
Date:Mar 20, 1993
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