NUCLEAR waste may not be waste any longer, it has been discovered.

Depleted uranium, which is created in nuclear power plants, is usually stored in expensive facilities or used to manufacture controversial armour-piercing missiles.

But a group of intrepid scientists from the University of Sussex has found a new use for this hazardous waste – generating energy.

Professor Geoff Cloke, Professor Richard Layfield and Dr Nikolaos Tsoureas managed to use a mixture containing depleted uranium to create ethane, a chemical which can be converted into a fuel known as ethanol.

Prof Layfield said their discovery was proof people do not need to be scared of nuclear waste.

“The ability to convert alkenes into alkanes is an important chemical reaction that means we may be able to take simple molecules and upgrade them into valuable commodity chemicals,” he said.

“The fact that we can use depleted uranium to do this provides proof that we don’t need to be afraid of it as it might actually be very useful for us.”

The depleted uranium mixture created by the chemists was used to convert ethylene, a material used to make plastic, into ethane.

Ethane can then be transformed into ethanol, an alcohol which can be used to power cars.

Prof Cloke said the discovery was a “milestone” in the race to deal with nuclear waste.

“Nobody has thought to use depleted uranium in this way before,” he said.

“While converting ethylene into ethane is nothing new, the use of uranium is a key milestone.

“The key to the reactivity were two fused pentagonal rings of carbon, known as pentalene, which help the uranium to inject electrons into ethylene and activate it towards addition of hydrogen.”

The Sussex scientists worked with chemists from Toulouse and Berlin to make their groundbreaking finding.

Their findings came as another University of Sussex academic had his plan to tackle climate change presented to the United Nations.

Last year international relations professor Peter Newell drew up his idea for a countries to sign an international treaty to keep fossil fuels in the ground

He proposed redirecting fossil fuel subsidies towards the renewable energy industry.

Now former Irish president Mary Robinson has endorsed his idea in a speech to the UN Security Council, calling for “new ideas” to tackle climate change.