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For decades, engineers have been looking for something to do with spent nuclear waste other than letting it just sit in a repository. There are 104 nuclear reactors in the country with tons of old fuel just waiting to find a purpose. Russell Goff, a masters student in the Department of Nuclear Engineering at Oregon State University and his company G-Demption LLC see the material as a way to sterilize medical equipment and foods. Holding an isotope in a patent-pending tube, he can harness the gamma rays to kill harmful bacteria.
Gamma rays have already been used to safely sterilize syringes, bandages, fruits, and meats. Cobalt-60 is generally utilized for this purpose, but supplies are somewhat limited and expensive. Only 40% of medical supplies are irradiated, while the rest is sterilized using the toxic, flammable gas ethylene oxide. The rays kill pathogens by preventing cell division through breaking down and rearranging DNA. Different organisms have differing amounts of DNA, so the levels of radiation would have to be adjusted for sterilization. Gamma rays can also be used to alter the structure of polymers such as PVC that allows scientists to change its softening point, as well as transforming the hues of gems in the jewelry industry.
By tapping into the nation’s nuclear waste supply, Goff hopes to create a facility where medical supplies or foods can be dropped off, safely irradiated, and then transported back by semi truck. He sees the buildings as an alternative to sites such as Yucca Mountain that are costly to maintain and embroiled in political debate. The G-Depmption technology could help finance the sequestration of nuclear fuel, aiding the federal government and nuclear plants alike to control the amount of waste they produce.