Researchers from the University of Sheffield’s Faculty of Engineering have developed a method which would significantly reduce the volume of nuclear waste, by up to 85-95%. Not only would it reduce the volume, but the end product would also effectively lock in the radioactive plutonium, creating a stable end product, a much more appealing proposition than current radioactive end results.
The researchers have developed a method that would mix plutonium-contaminated waste with blast furnace slag to create glass, locking away the radioactive material and reducing nuclear waste volume by over 80%. This is a much more attractive option compared to current method of containing the radioactive material in copious measures of concrete, which in turn increases the overall volume of waste products.
“The overall volume of plutonium contaminated wastes from operations and decommissioning in the UK could be upwards of 31,000 m3, enough to fill the clock tower of Big Ben seven times over,” says lead researcher, Professor Neil Hyatt. “Our process would reduce this waste volume to fit neatly within the confines of just one Big Ben tower.”
“If we can reduce the volume of waste that eventually needs to be stored and buried underground, we can reduce the costs considerably. At the same time, our process can stabilise the plutonium in a more corrosion resistant material, so this should improve the safety case and public acceptability of geological disposal.”
The method is currently designed around certain plutonium products, such as filters, used personal protective equipment, and decommissioning waste such as metals and masonry (from a nuclear production facility, for example). Subsequently, this approach could be useful in treating the large amounts of contaminated waste currently located at the damaged Fukushima power plant in Japan, when a clean-up is approved.
The research comes in the wake of recent attention redirected back towards the need for nuclear energy to supplement renewable energies in weaning humanity off fossil fuel energies. A week ago four leading climate scientists authored a public letter asking “those influencing environmental policy” to consider safe nuclear energy as a means of supplementing renewable energy.
“As climate and energy scientists concerned with global climate change, we are writing to urge you to advocate the development and deployment of safer nuclear energy systems,” they write, adding that “continued opposition to nuclear power threatens humanity’s ability to avoid dangerous climate change.”
The letter was followed by research from MIT which suggests that nuclear power plants could work in tandem with certain renewable energies to create hybrid power plants that “could add up to much more than the sum of its parts.”
While nuclear energy has never won a popularity vote, recent signs point to the fact that nuclear energy is going to be a vital intermediary step in reducing our dependence on fossil fuel energy, and creating an environment beneficial to all.
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