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The 20-year search for a home for the U.S.’s 77,000 tons of nuclear waste moved closer to a final resting place this week as the Senate approved Nevada’s Yucca Mountain as the nation’s official waste repository site. But in the next decade the controversy may become moot with the development of an alternative technology that bombards nuclear waste into a more benign substance.

Spent nuclear fuel remains dangerously radioactive for 10,000 years or more-one reason that storing it scares Nevada residents and scientists alike. In a study funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, nuclear physicists from the University of Nevada, New Mexico’s Los Alamos National Laboratory and other organizations have concluded that one possible technique for managing nuclear waste could work on an industrial scale. The technique-bombarding waste with high-speed neutrons-would reduce both the half-life of the waste’s longest-lived elements, such as plutonium, and the quantity of waste that needs to be stored.

The ultimate goal of the Advanced Accelerator Applications Program, as the study is called, is to build a demonstration unit that chemically treats spent nuclear fuel to extract plutonium and other long-lived elements-about one percent of the waste. These elements would then be placed in a particle accelerator or a special reactor and bombarded with neutrons, splitting their nuclei into elements that either aren’t radioactive or decay in just decades. Only then would the materials be placed in a facility such as Yucca Mountain.

The catch: a full-scale demonstration facility could take 20 years to build and cost $4 to $7 billion. But Stanford University physicist Burton Richter, chairman of an independent review board that recently endorsed the project, says the alternatives may cost even more. Even if the national repository under construction in Nevada’s Yucca Mountain opened today, he notes, U.S. nuclear plants would fill it by 2015. “For nuclear power to have a future,” Richter says, “we’ll either need more Yucca Mountains, or a way to decrease the stuff we put there.”

(This story has been modified from the July/August 2002 print edition.)

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