Nuclear power is generally safer and may produce considerably less waste than forms of energy production from fossil fuels, but the waste it does make is extremely hazardous and needs to be handled very carefully. When not disposed of properly, it can cause a variety of cancers and has negative impacts on the surrounding ecosystem. Storing the waste is currently done in large cement enclosures which are very expensive because the waste can take hundreds of thousands of years before becoming inert. A new technique may eliminate radioactive waste by around 90%. The study was led by Professor Neil Hyatt of Sheffield University’s Department of Materials Science and Engineering, and it was published in the Journal of Nuclear Materials.
The incredible volume reduction comes from combining the plutonium waste with ground granulated blast furnace slag, a byproduct from manufacturing steel and iron. The result is a glass that stabilizes the plutonium so it can be stored safely.
For the study, however, the team used cerium instead of plutonium. The two metals act similarly, leaving cerium as a safe alternative for the researchers to use while refining the technique. Three parts cerium and one part blast furnace slag were combined and heated to over 1500°C (2732°F) and then cooled at room temperature. The result is a durable black silicate glass that can safely store harmful plutonium.
The melting process does not produce a violent reaction and the glass product is only 5-20% of the volume of the starting materials. Because the process happens with very few steps, the research team hopes that it could eventually be used in in the clean up effort from the Fukushima plant that was damaged from the earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan in 2011.
Around the globe, over 200,000 cubic meters of radioactive waste from nuclear operations is generated each year. Transforming it into a glass that can be safely buried will significantly reduce disposal costs. Because this technique is much more safe, it could alleviate concerns among the public about burial disposal.