Transmuting Waste and Worries Away

The philosopher stone yearned for by Alchemists, was actually not a stone.

Alchemists of old yearned for the philosopher stone, a substance of magical quality that would allow them to transmute other elements into gold.  Nowadays, it would be even more valuable to have this mythical device, since its transmuting power could be harnessed to transform long lasting nuclear waste, if not into gold, then at least into less dangerous isotopes.

Scientists at the Belgium nuclear research center SCK CEN in Mol are working to accomplish exactly that. Lacking a philosopher stone, they are deploying the Swiss army knife of contemporary physics: A particle accelerator to create fast neutrons for the treatment of problematic nuclear waste.

A modern version of the philosopher stone: The MYRRHA (Multi-purpose hYbrid Research Reactor for High-tech Applications) concept allows for industrial scale treatment of nuclear waste. Fast neutrons are produced via nuclear spallation.

By capturing these neutrons, the waste can be transmuted into fission products with much shorter half-lives. The beauty of this concept is that the nuclear waste simultaneously serves as fuel in a sub-critical reactor.  A recent paper on this concept can be found here, and there is also an excellent presentation online (which contains the MYRRHA diagram and radiotoxicity graph).

Not only does this technology allow us to get rid of extremely worrisome long lasting radioactive material, but a nice side effect is that it will also alleviate our energy security worries, as this design is well suited to also use Thorium as fuel.

The following graph illustrates how dramatically this could alter our nuclear waste problem (note: the x-axis is logarithmic).

The requirement for save storage of nuclear waste could be drastically shortened from about 200,000 years to a mere 200, if processed in a suitable spallation reactor.

This flies in the face of conventional wisdom, as well as a world increasingly turned off by conventional nuclear energy in the wake of its latest catastrophe in Fukushima. After all, this new waste treatment still requires a nuclear reactor, and given the track record of this industry is it a risk worth taking?

To answer this, one must take into consideration that the idea of using a particle accelerator as a neutron source for a nuclear reactor is actually quite old, and significantly predates the recent research in Mol.  I first encountered the concept when preparing a presentation for nuclear physics 101 almost twenty years ago.  My subject was differing approaches to inherently safe reactor designs, "safe" in this context defined as the inability of the reactor to engage in a run-away nuclear chain reaction. (The treatment of nuclear waste was not even on the horizon at this point because the necessary reprocessing to separate the waste material from the depleted fuel rods did not exist).

The ratio of surface to volume is key in determining if a a neutron triggers enough follow up reactions to sustain a critical cascading chain reaction.

The idea is simple, design the reactor geometry in such a way that neutrons produced by the reaction don't have the opportunity to spawn more in follow-up reactions by having them escape the reactor vessel. Then, make up the balance by providing enough neutrons from an accelerator-driven reaction to sustain the nuclear fission process.  Once you pull the plug on the accelerator, the fission reaction cannot sustain itself.  Compare this with the situation in Fukushima or Chernobyl.  The latter was a classic run-away fission chain-reaction, and the biggest problem at Fukushima was that melted down fuel can become critical again (there is some indication that this may actually have happened to some degree).

Will an inherently safe fission reactor design, one that can melt away the stockpiles of most long lasting nuclear waste into something that will only be kept in safe storage for some hundreds of years, sway the environmentally motivated opposition to nuclear technology? Doubtful.  Many will argue that this is too good to be true and point to the fly in the ointment: The fact that reprocessing is essential to make this happen, and that doing this on an increased industrial scale will make accidental releases more likely.  Then there will be the talking point that the nuclear industry will simply use this as an opportunity to establish a Plutonium fuel cycle (one of the purposes that reprocessing technology was originally developed for).  Not to mention the strongly entrenched ideological notion, especially in some European countries, with Germany topping the list, that humanity is simply too immature to handle this kind of technology. In a way, this is the temporal analog to the Not In My Back-Yard (NIMBY) attitude, maybe it should be called the NIMLT principle, as in Not In My LifeTime, let future generations deal with it.

Do you think a core catcher would have helped in Fukushima?

Of course, the nuclear industry did little to earn any trust, when considering what transpired in the wake of the Chernobyl disaster.  In a pathetic display of a "lesson learned" they added "core catchers" to existing blueprints, rather than invest R&D dollars into an inherently safe design. Instead of fixing the underlying problem, they simply tried to make the worst imaginable accident more manageable.  It was as if a car manufacturer whose vehicles rarely, but occasionally, explode was improving the situation in the next model line by adding a bigger fire-extinguisher.
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In 2006 France changed its laws and regulations in anticipation of this new technology, and now requires that nuclear waste storage sites remain accessible for at least a hundred years so that the waste can be reclaimed. To me this seems eminently reasonable and pragmatic. The notion that we could safely compartmentalize dangerous nuclear waste for many thousands of years and guarantee that it would stay out of the biosphere always struck me as hubris. This technology offers a glimpse at a possible future where humanity may finally gain the capability to clean up its nuclear messes.

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17 Responses to Transmuting Waste and Worries Away

  1. spacegoat says:

    Great article.

    If this can add further to the safety of Thorium as fuel, then we may have an excellent overall solution.

    Melting away the stockpiles is essential to prevent likely future environmental disaster.

    The “Green/Ecology” movement needs to separate itself from politics and speak in the best interests of the environment.

    • Henning Dekant says:

      Happy you enjoyed it.

      Unfortunately the Green movement especially in Germany seems to have no trust in anything nuclear. To them the nuclear industry has been “the enemy” for far too long.

  2. Uncle remus says:

    This is not new. It was invented in the US at Los Alamos and researched throughout the 1990s. just google ATW los alamos.

    • Henning Dekant says:

      Uncle remus, I beg to differ. It is one thing to research the concept but another to actually get ready to prepare the construction of an industrial scale prototype reactor. I am not aware of a research reactor of similar scale anywhere else. If you have a link to something similar even in the planning phase, please share it.

  3. windbourne says:

    This is just an added expense/step that is not needed. Do it with thorium salts and simply bypass this waste of energy step.

  4. Rob says:

    Sure. This gets perfected, they store the waste on Moonbase Alpha and BAM it’s Space 1999 all over again.

  5. kurms says:

    Isn’t this the same idea as behind the Rubbiatron? Whatever happened to that?
    The main problem with this idea is that nobody appears interested to invest in it. This may change though, once the actual cost of attempting to bury nuclear waste is widely realized.

    • Henning Dekant says:

      Yes, MYRRHA will be an industrial scale Rubbiatron. (The latter term doesn’t seem to be in common use in English, i.e. there are wikipedia entries for it in German and French but not English.)

  6. Dan H. says:

    There is another highly beneficial aspect to this sort of reactor which the article did not touch upon: it can use plutonium as a fuel. Plutonium is generally used as the major component of nuclear weapons, and whilst pretty much every nation in the present world is either sane enough not to use nuclear devices in anger (or is too afraid of the retaliation from trying such a strategy), we simply cannot say the same about future governments.

    Let’s not take the chance of a nation of technically inept but ideologically lunatic people deciding to turn a plutonium stockpile into weapons. Let us instead make a habit of reprocessing plutonium first into useless-for-weapons fuel rods, and then into actual energy to avoid this sort of future catastrophe.

    • Henning Dekant says:

      Dan, thanks for highlighting that this could help reduce the amount of Plutonium that’s out there. I very much share your sentiment.

  7. Nuclear Gale says:

    I am happy to see that your article continues the conversation on nuclear fuel recycling. There are so many options of how to recycle fuel, and any of them would be better than throwing reusable fuel away as we do now.

    The second to last paragraph seems very misleading to me, though, since I am only aware of one commercially available reactor that uses a “core catcher,” the Areva EPR. The remainder of the advanced designs have instead significantly increased safety margins by incorporating passive safety features. In the Westinghouse AP1000, all safety systems rely on things like gravity, pressure differences, spring forces, etc, instead of electrical motors and pumps to ensure operation.

    • Henning Dekant says:

      Nuclear Gale, your choice of user name indicates to me that you are pretty fond of everything nuclear. This is certainly not the case for me. I experienced the fall-out from Chernobyl in Southern Germany, where you were strongly advised not to enjoy any venison or to collect wild mushrooms form many years after due to the accumulation of radioactive Caesium and Strontium (I love mushrooms). To this day the after effects are still with us.

      The core catcher is just a catchy example for what to me was an entirely inadequate reaction to this catastrophe by the nuclear industry. Tin ear doesn’t even begin to describe it. I would have expected a comprehensive push for inherently safe, preferably sub-critical reactor designs. Instead we got incremental engineering around the margins.

      • Facts are Refreshing says:

        While the Evolutionary Power Reactor (EPR) is an example of incremental engineering improvement, I would be remiss if I did not clarify that other new nuclear designs employ inherently safe, passive safety systems. For example, the AP1000 plant utilizes a Passive Core Cooling System and Passive Containment Cooling System. In the worst case scenario of core melt, the
        In-Vessel Retention system prevents the core from escaping the reactor vessel.

        • Henning Dekant says:

          My spam bot quarantined this comment because it assumes it must be a Westinghouse ad. No doubt these reactors are better than the previous generations but I always like to get back to my car analogy for sound engineering. See, they perform crash tests because no simulation can guarantee to capture all parameters. So I am wondering did Westinghouse test these passive security system with a realistic scenario i.e. created an artificial core melt and studied how the passive security systems performed? Then you could also study how to clean up the mess afterwards. The Chernobyl sarcophage was a bit of slapped together improvisation, wasn’t it? Wouldn’t want to go through that again.

          I like the car analogy for another reason, because everybody knows that you can get insurance coverage for accidents in the open market. Know of a conventional nuclear reactor that could obtain a similar coverage?

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