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Los Alamos Scientists Claim Possible Solution to Nuclear Waste Disposal

Aired August 3, 2000 - 2:39 p.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

LOU WATERS, CNN ANCHOR: What do you do with nuclear waste? Well, the barrels used to store it only last about 100 years. But now, scientists say a new material safely can store waste for a millennium or longer.

Here's CNN's David George.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DAVID GEORGE, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): You could call it the stuff that will not die: spent fuel rods from nuclear power plants. How to dispose of them is the problem the nuclear industry has never solved to its critics' satisfaction.

Each nuclear power plant generates an average of 20 metric tons of highly radioactive waste each year. It's waste that will continue to emit deadly radiation for tens of thousands of years.

The long-range plan is to entomb high-level nuclear waste inside Yucca Mountain in Nevada. But even if nuclear waste is buried forever, there's fear that eventually the containers in which it's stored will deteriorate, allowing radiation into contact with the environment.

Scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratory think they may have found a solution to the problem.

KURT SICKAFUS, NUCLEAR SCIENTIST: We have proposed a set of materials, a set of crystalline ceramic oxides, which appear to have very high radiation tolerance.

GEORGE: In a series of experiments, some involving computer simulations, some conducted in the laboratory at nearly 400 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, Sickafus and his colleagues found that a class of ceramic crystals called fluorites could actually contain radiation, keep it from escaping. They think that combining nuclear waste with the ceramic oxide crystals would result in an entirely new material, one that, while highly radioactive, would never contaminate the Earth.

SICKAFUS: So you're essentially, in the end, relying on the high stability of these rock-like oxides to hold your radioactive constituents and keep them out of any environmental situations where they would come back to interact with the living environment. GEORGE: The Los Alamos researchers say more work is needed to come up with just the right chemical combination to produce the most durable ceramic crystal for long-term storage of nuclear waste.

David George, CNN.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

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