Nuclear waste could generate up to a millennia of zero-carbon electricity for Europe if it were recycled and repurposed as fuel for advanced nuclear reactors, according to a new report from the environmental campaign group RePlanet.

Spent nuclear fuel, the most radioactive part of nuclear waste, could be reused in advanced nuclear plants known as ‘fast reactors’ to create between 600 and 1,000 years of carbon-free electricity for the EU, according to the research. A fast reactor is one in which the fission chain reaction is sustained by fast neutrons (carrying energies above 1 MeV or greater), as opposed to slow thermal neutrons used in thermal-neutron reactors.

Instead of being buried in deep geological repositories, the spent fuel could be maintained in accessible form and used to power the clean energy transition, argues the ‘What a Waste’ campaign.

“While the economics of fast reactors are currently unproven, if resources currently intended for deep geological disposal of spent fuel were diverted instead into a fast reactor programme that would enable the re-use of that fuel, this would turn a burden into a useful part of a legitimate circular economic activity,” the authors write in the report.   

Environmental writer Mark Lynas, one of the report’s authors, argues that calling irradiated nuclear fuel “waste” is wrong given that more than 90% of the fissionable energy remains unused. The potential of recycling spent nuclear fuel for advanced nuclear reactors means that nuclear waste is a “solved problem”, he says.

“Current political narratives treat spent nuclear fuel like it is a waste product that needs to be buried underground, leaving a toxic legacy for future generations,” said Lynas, one of RePlanet’s co-founders, in a press statement. “Anti-nuclear campaigners never tire of repeating this mantra in their campaign to shut down nuclear plants irrespective of our climate emergency. However, we show in this RePlanet report that nuclear waste simply needs to be recycled efficiently in order to generate centuries of clean power for Europe and the UK. This material is not waste, it is fuel for the future.”