Turning Nuclear Waste into Glass and Ceramics is the Best Way to Contain It

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Turning Nuclear Waste into Glass and Ceramics is the Best Way to Contain It

Image via Pexels / Public Domain.
Image via Pexels / Public Domain.

Nuclear waste is one of the nasty side-effects nuclear power plants produce today. There are, of course, the extremely rare accidents like the one in Chernobyl in 1986 or Fukushima in 2011, but these are extremely rare occurrences. The biggest threat posed by nuclear power plants is their nuclear waste left behind. And there is a lot of it already. Not to mention the fact that, if we somehow want to survive the severe climate change that’s taking place all around us even as you read this, we would need to build at least another 700 such power plants around the globe. These, of course, will compensate the other renewable forms of energy like solar and wind.

Anyway, countries today dispose of their nuclear waste by either burying it deep in the ground, seal it and then dump it in the ocean, or even worse yet, use it in the manufacturing of extremely dangerous, depleted uranium weapons. Not only are these weapons deadly on impact, they also produce long-lasting negative side effects on both people and the environment for decades to come. What’s even worse is that this waste is chemically mobile in water and can be carried away by rivers and rain, so it can spread all over the globe.

However, a new method of safely disposing of nuclear waste may come in the form of turning it into glass and ceramic materials. Ashutosh Goel, researcher and assistant professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering at Rutgers University, is the one in charge of the project, alongside five other similar projects, all involving waste containment in glass.

“Glass is a perfect material for immobilizing the radioactive wastes with excellent chemical durability,” said Goel.

Containing waste in glass might provide us with a safe way to dispose of them in the future. And it will look like this. Image credits Albert Kruger / U.S. Department of Energy.
Containing waste in glass might provide us with a safe way to dispose of them in the future. And it will look like this.
Image credits Albert Kruger / U.S. Department of Energy.

One of its projects is about mass producing apatite glass which is able to immobilize iodine-129 atoms in a stable form. This element is highly mobile in water and air, and has a half-life of 15.7 million years. Iodine-129 increases the risk of cancer by affecting the thyroid gland. Among other things, Goel is looking into the development of synthetic apatite minerals from silver iodine particles, as well as capturing crystallization-resistant sodium and aluminum atoms from highly radioactive waste in borosilicate glass.

One of Goel’s biggest founders and supporters is the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), which is currently in charge of a nation-wide nuclear waste clean-up program. In wake of the country’s 45 year-long nuclear weapon development and production which involved 16 major facilities in Idaho, Nevada, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Washington, DOE has a daunting task ahead. The facility in Hanford, Washington is one of the biggest challenges here. This complex has produced some 20 million pieces of uranium metal fuel.

The Hanford plants alone were responsible for over 56 million gallons of nuclear waste which were placed in 177 underground tanks. It is believed that at least 67 of these tanks have ruptured and have leaked part of their contents into the ground and water bed. Back in 1989, the first operations of cleaning up took place, draining all liquid materials from the tanks. In 1999, a radioactive liquid waste treatment plant began construction which is now nearing completion.

“What we’re talking about here is highly complex, multicomponent radioactive waste which contains almost everything in the periodic table,” Goel said. “What we’re focusing on is underground and has to be immobilized.”

The DOE hopes to start churning out radioactive-waste-glass by 2022 or 2023 at Hanford, Goel said.

The implications of our research will be much more visible by that time.”

“[The process] depends on its [the waste material’s] composition, how complex it is and what it contains,” Goel added. “If we know the chemical composition of the nuclear waste coming out from those plants, we can definitely work on it.”

The full paper “Can radioactive waste be immobilized in glass for millions of years?” is still awaiting publication. Materials provided by Rutgers University can be found here.