Scientists see way to make nuclear waste safe

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The Independent Online

Physicists believe they are close to the Holy Grail for the world's nuclear industry, a solution to the critical problems posed by its growing stockpile of nuclear waste.

In what seems like an unlikely act of modern alchemy, an elite group of nuclear physicists believe they can "transmute" highly radioactive nuclear waste into lower grade radioactive waste.

The technique involves firing high-energy beams of protons in particle accelerators at nuclear waste or spent fuel, releasing the remaining energy as heat. The process should result in waste of much lower radioactivity, with a half-life of several hundred years rather than tens of thousands of years. It also eliminates weapons-grade plutonium in the fuel.

Research into the technique, which is still at least 10 years from being fully tested, is being led by American scientists at the Lawrence Livermore and Oak Ridge laboratories, by the Japanese and by a Franco-Italian team.

The technique has also been backed by the Organisation of Economic Development and Cooperation (OECD). Its global science forum in December said it was "a promising technology whose potential benefits deserve the attention of policymakers in all countries" with nuclear programmes.

And, for the first time, the British Government has indicated that it wants to support the research. In a "strategic road-map" document on physics research written by the DTI's Office of Science and Technology this summer, ministers have been urged to fund the construction of larger and more powerful particle accelerators at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in Oxfordshire, and to back more European research.

Building the more powerful accelerator at RAL, the report states, "would give strong synergistic support to UK needs in particle physics, potential interest in waste transmutation, isotope production and radioactive beam developments".

But ministers could also invest heavily in a nuclear accelerator based at Grenoble, France, to maintain a foothold in the field. Other similar projects are being worked on in Germany and Austria. In a clear attempt to pressurise ministers, the report warns that failure to invest in advanced particle physics technology will mean "current European dominance in the field will be significantly challenged" by the US and Japan by 2015.

The technique is still unproven. With research and development costs of tens of billions of dollars, the OECD believes it could take until 2050 to establish on a commercial basis.

Scientists admit there are still formidable technical problems to be solved. The particle accelerators need to be of much greater power than at present, and to be able to work uninterrupted for long periods. Finally, coping with the vast heat and molten nuclear waste involved will challenge engineers.

But Dr Ian Corbett, head of programmes at the UK's Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council, said the technique had immense potential: "The problem of waste from nuclear energy is well-known. The transmutation process offers very good prospects of dealing with this problem in an environmentally safe way.

"It has the potential to transform the future of nuclear power generation."