Scientists at Los Mamos Scientific Laboratory in New Mexico have used an experimental laser to turn uranium wastes into uranium that could be used in electric power plants.
"What we've done in the laboratory is demonstrate the possibility of doubling the Uranium that's usable for generating electricity." Dr. Paul Robinson, head of the Los Alamos. Applied Photo-Chemistry Division. "This is a long way off from any commercialization and we need at least three years before we can demonstrate that commercial quantities of uranium can be produced this way."
What Robinson did was use laser light to heat tiny quantites of spent uranium "tails," which are in a gaseous form called uranium hexafluoride. The "tails" contain only three-tenths of 1 per cent of the uranium isotope known as U-235 that produces the chain reaction that generates electricity.
The laser heats the gas to such high temperatures that it evaporates away many of the impurities in the gas, leaving behind a solid that is also chemically different from uranium hexatluoride. The solid is then "enriched" with about eight-tenths of 1 per cent of the isotope U-235, more than doubling the usuable isotope.
Theoretically, this amount of the isotope can be recycled through a uranium enrichment plant to produce commercial amounts of usable uranium.
The "tails" that Robinson worked with in his Los Alamos laboratory are identical to the tails that have been accumulating as wastes in the nation's three uranium enrichment plants.