The distinctive butterfly-shaped compound is similar to radioactive molecules scientists had said they believed to be key components of nuclear waste but were thought too unstable to exist for long.
However, scientists at the University of Edinburgh have shown the compound to be robust and long-lasting, suggesting molecules with a similar structure may be present in radioactive waste.
Such molecules may have a part in forming clusters of radioactive material in waste that are difficult to separate during cleanup, they said.
Targeting this type of molecule could help the nuclear industry move toward cleaner power generation, in which all the radioactive material from spent fuel could be recovered and made safe or used again, a university release said Monday.
"We have made a molecule that, in theory, should not exist, because its bridge-shaped structure suggests it would quickly react with other chemicals," Polly Arnold of the university's school of chemistry said.
"This discovery that this particular form of uranium is so stable could help optimize processes to recycle valuable radioactive materials and so help manage the United Kingdom's nuclear legacy."