Science: A nuclear opportunity goes to waste: Peter Hodgson looks at how the Japanese are taking the lead in a field where British research once held prominence

MOST OF our household waste is disposed of by burying it underground or burning it in municipal incinerators from which the heat energy can, on occasion, be put to good use. But nuclear waste is different, we are often told.

Conventional wisdom has it that the highly radioactive fission products in the spent fuel rods discharged from nuclear reactors are a special hazard.

For 30 years, the rods from Britain's first-generation Magnox reactors have been consigned to the Sellafield reprocessing plant where they are dissolved in nitric acid, and the uranium and plutonium, which can both be re-used, extracted.

Sellafield's controversial new thermal oxide reprocessing plant - Thorp - which is complete but not yet in operation, is designed to treat the spent fuel rods from second-generation advanced gas-cooled reactors and from American-style light-water reactors in a similar way.

However, reprocessing still leaves behind a highly radioactive liquor containing the fission products. British Nuclear Fuels, which operates the Sellafield reprocessing plant, has bought French technology designed to evaporate this liquid and cast the waste into solid glass blocks. Because they contain so much radioactivity, the blocks have to be cooled and government policy is that they should then be stored for at least 50 years behind heavy shielding in a purpose-built air-cooled building at Sellafield.

The best we can then do, according to the nuclear industry, is to bury them carefully in stainless-steel containers deep underground. The half-lives of many of the fission products are tens of thousands of years, and there is nothing we can do to alter that.

However it is possible to 'burn' nuclear wastes, and research is already under way in Japan to find how this can best be done. There are two possibilities, both aimed at destroying the long-lived nuclides by nuclear reactions. These long-lived radioactive elements are mainly the 'actinides' - atoms created inside a reactor by the nuclear transmutation of the elements.

The first method is to use what is called an actinide burner reactor. In this, the actinides are irradiated by an intense beam of neutrons from a fast reactor. The neutrons, which are electrically uncharged, can penetrate the inner nucleus of many atoms. Many reactions can take place, and these transmute the long-lived actinides to stable or short-lived nuclei, which can be easily stored until they decay. Many of the reactions themselves produce neutrons that can transmute or 'burn' nearby actinides. In this way, the burner acts as nuclear reactor, except that it needs an external beam of neutrons.

The other method is to irradiate the unwanted actinides by a beam of high-energy protons. Protons are similar particles to neutrons, except that the proton carries an electric charge. The proton forms the nucleus of hydrogen, the simplest of all atoms. Beams of these protons hit the actinide nuclei and break them up into many pieces, in a reaction called spallation. The products are also stable or short-lived nuclei.

However, before these nuclear incinerators can be built, careful studies of efficiency, cost and safety have to be made. Some of the burning reactions that will occur are well known, but many are not. It is expensive and often impossible to measure the reaction data needed, so research is in progress to see how best they can be calculated in future. The Japanese are among the world leaders in this branch of nuclear physics.

Until recently there was also a strong research programme dealing with these problems in this country, both in government establishments and in universities. However, the recent cuts in the fast-reactor programme have severely curtailed this work, and it is likely to cease within a few years.

Once again we see the closing of an area of research where Britain has long been among the world leaders. Nevertheless, it will continue in Japan, and in a few years we may hope to see an efficient and environmentally friendly solution to the problem of the disposal of nuclear wastes.

Dr Peter Hodgson is a Fellow of Corpus Christi College and lecturer in theoretical nuclear physics at Oxford University.

(Photograph omitted)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooksNow available in paperback
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Packaging Operatives

£7 - £8 per hour: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen for two indivi...

Ashdown Group: Trainee / Graduate Helpdesk Analyst

£20000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A highly reputable business is looking to rec...

Recruitment Genius: Estimator

£28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is a major supplier of buil...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer

£28000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

Christmas cocktails to make you merry

Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

Paul Scholes column

It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas