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New tech cuts 80% of highly radioactive waste in nuclear power plants

New tech cuts 80% of highly radioactive waste in nuclear power plants

A former CERN scientist working at the private nuclear fission company Transmutex has developed a new approach that could radically cut down the radioactivity of nuclear waste by as much as 80 percent.

Based in Switzerland, Transmutex’s technology was reviewed over several months by Nagra, the Swiss national body that manages nuclear waste, which also arrived at this estimate. 

While the operational safety of nuclear fission reactors has often been the focus of attention, the safety of the spent fuel requires more attention. Nuclear fission fuel remains radioactive for hundreds of thousands of years, long after the energy extracted from it is used up. 

As countries look for ways to move away from fossil fuels, nuclear fission technology is poised for a comeback. At COP28 last year, 20 nations decided to triple their nuclear energy capacity in the next 25 years but plans for long-term storage of spent fuel have yet to be drawn up. 

Interesting Engineering has previously reported Finland’s plans to store nuclear fuel one thousand feet below sea level for over 100,000 years.

However, with countries ramping up nuclear energy production, more such facilities are required unless technological breakthroughs such as Transmutex’s are adopted. 

What is Transmutex’s technology? 

As its name suggests, Transmutex relies on the transmutation of elements—the conversion of an element into its isotope or another element altogether. Technically speaking, this is the same principle that alchemists attempted to apply in the past to turn metals into gold. 

Where the alchemists failed, former scientists from CERN have been able to succeed. Using a particle accelerator, the researchers propose using a slightly radioactive element such as thorium and transmuting it into an isotope of uranium. 

The accelerator is connected to a nuclear fission plant, where the newly generated uranium can be processed immediately. However, unlike its uranium counterpart, which is used in nuclear power plants today, this uranium does not produce plutonium or other highly radioactive waste. 

The technology is the brainchild of Carlo Rubbia, the former director-general of the physics laboratory at CERN. 

Hurdles in the path

While Rubbia might have had access to a particle accelerator at his old workplace, nuclear energy plants do not have the same luxuries. Building a particle accelerator near each plant can be quite expensive, considering that CERN spent nearly US$5 billion to deliver the Large Hadron Collider. 

The other challenge is the opposition to nuclear technology itself. Interesting Engineering has previously reported how Germany phased off its nuclear power plants. Switzerland, too, has similar plans for its four existing nuclear power production facilities. 

If the government is convinced, Transmutex’s technology could be a lifesaver for these plants. Transmutex has raised private funding for its technology, but Nagra’s assessment is also a major boost. 

According to the Swiss national body, Transmutex’s technology could help reduce the volume of nuclear waste generated by 80 percent and reduce the time it remains radioactive to less than 500 years. More importantly, the technology could also be applied to 99 percent of existing nuclear waste. 

With regard to operational safety, a Transmutex-powered nuclear facility could also be shut down in two milliseconds, an unprecedented measure in fission tech, a company statement added. 


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Ameya Paleja Ameya is a science writer based in Hyderabad, India. A Molecular Biologist at heart, he traded the micropipette to write about science during the pandemic and does not want to go back. He likes to write about genetics, microbes, technology, and public policy.