Want Not Waste Not – A Look at the Nuclear Legacy of Waste – Part II

5 March 2008 (Last Updated March 5th, 2008 18:30)

The second part of our special report about the disposal of nuclear waste. David Binning looks at how countries are not only taking more responsible for spent fuel but designing plants that can help reduce waste in the first place.

Want Not Waste Not – A Look at the Nuclear Legacy of Waste – Part II

Australians remain quite hostile towards most things nuclear and it appears unlikely that the current generations will embrace nuclear power.

In nuclear research, however, the country is a world leader and following five decades of work at the controversial Lucas Heights facility in southern Sydney, ANSTO (Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation) still has its own waste management challenges.

ANSTO, the Australian Federal Government and various other groups have tried for some time to reach consensus on what to do with its waste.

Significantly, the last batch of waste recycled from the recently closed HIFAR reactor is on its way to the US in just a few weeks. HIFAR lived to 50 and is to be replaced by the much more advanced OPAL reactor.

Some years ago ANSTO and the Australian National University developed a technology able to lock high and intermediate-level waste in what it calls a 'synthetic rock matrix'.

Marketed as Synroc, ANSTO says that the technology can prevent radioactivity from leaching into the environment for millions of years.

"Synroc technology can prevent radioactivity from leaching into the environment for millions of years."

Although Australia is without a nuclear power industry, and therefore does not possess the large quantity of waste such as has been generated by France and other pro-nuclear countries, ANSTO is active in helping its Asian neighbours, including Vietnam, Korea and Malaysia to develop better practises for the handling of their nuclear waste. "There's a big push to standardise nuclear waste management throughout Asia," says Dimitrovski.

There has also been a lot of talk about where responsibility for nuclear waste ultimately lies. This is of particular concern in politically unstable countries. However, progress is being made to formalise standards of conduct which would include decrees that countries must themselves dispose of the waste that they generate.

In 1994 the Finnish government amended its nuclear energy act to reflect such an undertaking. All nuclear waste created in Finland is to be disposed of in Finland. The country has two main nuclear plants (Olkiluoto in Eurajoki and the VVER Loviisa Nuclear Power Plant). All waste is to be stored at the former.

SPENDING FUEL MORE EFFICIENTLY

One of the most important emerging issues in addressing the challenges of nuclear waste is that of achieving better efficiency for nuclear fuel itself. Younger reactors and those yet to be built with brand new technology are said to generate significantly lower levels of waste per unit of power generated than many of the older reactors soon to be decommissioned.

"Because of the way fuel in reactors work, the sort of reactor you build today produces significantly less (at least ten times less) spent fuel than the older types of reactor," says Professor Horsley, a fellow with the Royal Academy of Engineers. "And the fuel is much more robust."

Late last year ANSTO was granted a patent in the US for an 'ion-exchange technology platform' capable of removing a wide range of toxic radioactive and non-radioactive heavy metals including, lead, silver, caesium, lanthanides and actinides from industrial processing solutions resulting from nuclear and minerals activities.

Leading the team that developed the technology, ANSTO's principal research scientist of advanced materials for energy applications, Dr Victor Luca says that the technology has major implications for the treatment of all sorts of toxic wastes. With regard to the nuclear fuel cycle, it may also lead to far greater recycling rates and therefore better efficiency. Most reactors today extract little more than 5% of the energy from uranium.

"The sort of reactors built today produce significantly less spent fuel than the older types."

"The technology is a metal oxide material containing atomic scale channels that are akin to a common kitchen sieve, which is where the analogy ends," he said. "These molecular sieves display such exquisite selectively for certain metallic atoms they can pluck them out of the most highly acidic solutions containing massive concentrations of other elements."

The technology, developed initially to deal with ANSTO's own waste, has clear applications for the decontamination of solutions involved in uranium and copper mining operations as well as improving the sustainability of nuclear energy, Luca added.

"The shackles of Chernobyl and Three Mile island have only just started to come off."