Green Nuclear Waste?


Atomic power once held great promise to solve the world's energy crisis. In spite of the tremendous drawbacks posed by process safety and radioactive waste, the technology still beckons as the world contemplates that the risks of petroleum use have been seriously underestimated. If only we could have nuclear power without the radioactive waste... But wait, research led by Thomas Schulenberg of the Karlsruhe research center may be just the answer. And his process can harvest energy to boot while the waste is being deactivated (technically, "transmutated"; now there's a scifi word).Of course, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. The technology is in the early stages and won't be industrially available for decades. But the science is sound. Thomas Schulenberg's team is working on a process with which protons can be shot at liquid lead, which in turns releases a stream of neutrons. The neutrons then shower the long-lived radioactive particles, breaking them into pieces. While still radioactive, the smaller pieces have half-lives which make waste management similar to the lifespan of a normal landfill a viable possibility. This removes the most daunting aspect of nuclear waste management: who really believes stabilization can be reliably achieved over millenia?

This golden grail is being sought by many labs, and many partners contribute to these projects, but Schulenberg's team has now demonstrated the theory in the European nuclear research center, CERN. The process still faces many challenges. Not least, there is no standard process technology for working with melted lead, which must be constantly circulating through a piping system to prevent the lead from being vaporized by the heat induced in the process. And of course, the pretreatment of burned-out nuclear fuel rods to separate out specifically the radioactive particles, and make them available for processing, is a seriously limiting factor in the current process.

The fission (splitting) of the radioactive waste releases energy which can be harvested. That sounds good, but of course running a particle accelerator to generate the protons for starting this reaction is hardly free. I guess we'll have to get a mole into the next conference of nuclear physicists to target the question of life cycle analysis.

Nevertheless, the current efficiencies of most alternative energy processes suggest that the energy demands of the near future cannot be satisfied with windmills and wave power while maintaining (and spreading to developing areas) the standard of prosperity we enjoy today. Biofuels compete with foods and create a unique new set of ecological compromises. The nuclear question is back on the table in countries (like Germany) where existing facilities are reaching their age limits. It is good to know there are people out there working on better answers for the waste. And so what if it takes a decade or two? That is nothing compared to millenia.