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Tricky element isolated from spent nuclear fuel

New strategy for extracting americium could pave way for recycling hazardous waste

By
2:00pm, November 5, 2015
nuclear plant

WASTE BUILDUP  U.S. nuclear power plants, including the Enrico Fermi Nuclear Generating Station in Newport, Mich., store their waste. Eventually engineers may make used fuel safer in part by extracting the radioactive element americium.

An electrical kick is all it takes to isolate one hazardous element from the rest of a nuclear power plant’s toxic waste.

New research published in the Nov. 6 Science demonstrates how to chemically manipulate the element americium so that it can be easily extracted from used nuclear fuel. While americium may not have the name recognition of uranium or plutonium, it’s highly radioactive and emits enough heat to complicate fuel storage. And until now, it was one of the trickiest elements to isolate and remove from nuclear waste.

The new technique could lead to improved methods of handling nuclear waste, reprocessing it in a way that eliminates the most dangerous elements (including americium) and ensures that the remaining waste is safer to store.

Scientists can already recycle portions of nuclear waste by dissolving solid fuel in acid and extracting uranium, plutonium and

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