The current method used to dispose of radioactive materials requires an excessive amount of concrete, and it’s extremely space-intensive due to the increased volume of the material that has to be entombed. In response to this, researchers from the University of Sheffield’s Faculty of Engineering developed a new process that mixes plutonium-contaminated waste with blast furnace slag to create glass. If employed, this new storage method would result in an 80 percent reduction of waste volume, along with a more stable end product.
Lead researcher Professor Neil Hyatt explained the scale of the problem as it relates to the UK. “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,” he says. “Our process would reduce this waste volume to fit neatly within the confines of just one Big Ben tower.”
The method is so far limited to certain plutonium products such as filters, used personal protective equipment, and decommissioned waste such as metals and masonry from nuclear production facilities. Still, this breakthrough technology could make nuclear energy a more feasible option as a cleaner alternative to fossil fuels.
“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 research comes at a time when attention has been redirected towards the need for nuclear energy to supplement renewable energies before the world can be moved away from fossil fuels completely. MIT researchers have even suggested that the fusion of renewable and nuclear energy “could add up to much more than the sum of its parts.”