The incredible amount of energy contained within atomic nuclei is well known. Understanding the chemistry of the radioactive isotopes is essential for the safe use of this energy, while at the same time minimizing risks from spent fuel handling and weapons proliferation.
In a typical commercial reactor, only a few percent of the energy in fuel can be used before products of uranium splitting build up enough to interfere with the carefully balanced nuclear chain reaction. Understanding the chemistry of fuel rods allows them to be "reprocessed" – that is, to be chemically separated into various useful and waste components. Fuel materials like uranium and plutonium can be recycled back into reactors, greatly increasing total energy utilization, while dramatically reducing the amount of highly radioactive waste. Other materials that can be isolated have important applications in medicine and research.
Oxford Chemistry is developing new chemicals and approaches for spent fuel reprocessing that are designed to be "inherently-safe," making it much more difficult for spent fuel to be turned into weapons. New, advanced spectroscopic techniques are also being developed to analyze radioactive chemicals on ultra-fast timescales and in extremely small amounts, which can provide important fundamental insights about fuel materials during reprocessing.