Promising solutions to nuclear waste management

One of the stickier problems posed by nuclear power is what to do with the leftover radioactive material. It is a large problem for the U.S. as it has some 40,000 tons of the toxic stuff. Some scientists think they have the answer, called pyroprocessing.

The U.S. Department of Energy's Argonne National Laboratory-West, at Scoville, Idaho, has come up with the first laboratory-scale process employing pyroprocessing – which scientists hope will allow nuclear garbage to be transmuted into something that can be stored safely or recycled. It also would discourage theft of plutonium by persons bent on making a bomb.

  • Pyroprocessing uses an electrolysis process borrowed from aluminium smelting – whereby plutonium is extracted from nuclear waste in a way that taints it with other materials.

  • This leaves a metal that is hot, difficult to work with and lethally radioactive – posing additional problems for potential bomb makers.

  • Plutonium and other heavy elements with long radioactive lives account for only 1 percent of nuclear wastes.

  • So if these elements can be safely removed, 96 percent of the waste remaining is U-238 – a relatively harmless, lead-like material that can be stored in low-level existing waste facilities.

    The laboratory's John L. Sackett does not consider the plutonium as waste. He says isotopes could be extracted and used for medical purposes. Then the plutonium can be broken into other elements and processed, for example, into xenon, a non-radioactive gas.

    Sackett and others claim the process could largely pay for itself, by selling the electricity the government reactors would produce in the transmuting process.

    The wastes that remain would be radioactive for only about 300 years – posing a far less daunting storage problem than wastes with radioactive lives of 100,000 years.

    Source: John J. Fialka, Scientists Tout Methods for Reprocessing Nuclear Wastes, Wall Street Journal, August 21, 2001.

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    FMF\28 August 2001
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