UI leading charge on nuclear waste research

Some elements cast a glow when held under a black light, including some Uranium. Other samples of Uranium don't glow, and researchers are still uncertain of the cause.

As energy goes, waste stays.

For evidence, look no further than the nuclear waste storage issue, as workers and researchers alike run into the same problem.

Radioactive waste is a byproduct of nuclear energy, and that waste remains for hundreds of thousands of years, which is far longer than the dry casks (big metal sealed tubes) designed to temporarily store said waste.

Fortunately, the potency of nuclear waste decreases over time.

Still, no long-term proposal has proven to be a long-term solution, prompting chemists to search for answers to an unending problem.

Power plants like Duane Arnold Energy Center store waste on site, meaning radioactive elements like uranium are in the proverbial backyard of Eastern Iowa.

Exposure to nuclear waste leads to higher rates of cancer, cataracts, and various other ailments.

Scientists at the University of Iowa are pioneering research in the field of nuclear waste, from both a management and medical perspective.

"We at the University of Iowa have been developing a program where we're starting to train students and the future generations to deal with this growing problem," said Dr. Tori Forbes, an associate professor of chemistry at Iowa. "We're at the bottom of the periodic table, so we're actually at the frontiers of science."

Forbes was a key cog in introducing a radiochemistry department at the university in 2011. Interest is on the rise, with introductory courses seeing enrollment more than double in the program's short history.

Despite an increasing need to address nuclear waste, Iowa's program is one of only a few in the country experiencing growth, according to Forbes, who said many others have ceased entirely.

Forbes said she hopes the university can become "a center of excellence" in the field of nuclear waste research, as the chemistry department partnered with the college of medicine to address the impacts of radiation.

Graduate research assistant Madeline Basile expressed excitement about the prospect of collaborating.

"It's less competitive as far as my research, your research," said Basile, who has studied radiochemistry for more than a half-decade. "It's an initiative to get this stuff done."

Basile underscored the significance of resolving this ongoing problem, analogizing short-term storage of waste to that of a child putting his/her dirty clothes underneath the bed.

"That doesn't make them go away or get clean," said Basile.

The radiochemistry researchers are working to determine the basic differences within elements like Uranium and Neptunium, which could then lead to breakthroughs.

"If we can figure out the differences," said Basile, "we can separate them."

Separation has the potential to improve waste storage and even allow for waste to be reused.

"There's still a lot of energy left in the waste when we bring it out," said Forbes, pointing to France as a model. "We just as a nation have decided not to go that way."

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