Innovation & Technology

Scientific breakthrough in nuclear waste management

An international consortium is working on a transmutator based on laser-generated neutrons as a new solution for nuclear waste management.

A procedure for easier management of nuclear waste has been developed by the University of Szeged in collaboration with the École Politechnique University in Paris and Tri Alpha Energy, California. 

The infrastructure of the government-sponsored international project is provided by the Szeged laser center and the ELI-ALPS research center.

Nuclear waste: the challenge is to store long-lived components

“Storage of long-lived components poses a particular challenge in the management of nuclear waste, as it is not widely accepted by society that the location of radiation will be guaranteed for 100,000 or even millions of years,” said Gábor Szabó, Vice-Rector of the University of Szeged. The laser physicist added that partitioning and transmutation are the solution to the problem.

Modern alchemy: separation and transformation

During partitioning, the different components of nuclear waste will be separated from each other, and the long half-lives will be transformed by transmutation. Transmutation is, in fact, a modern and functional version of alchemy in which the substance is exposed, for example, neutron irradiation, which results in the formation of another nucleus or nuclei that are stable or rapidly decomposed.

Laser technology is the answer to a decades-old idea

The idea of transmutation is not new, and it has been known for decades that the process makes the management of radioactive waste considerably easier. The spread of transmutation methods was hindered by two practical problems. On the one hand, the current procedures do not, or only to a very limited extent, can trace the transmutation process. Another problem is that the generation of neutrons to initiate and sustain the transmutation process has so far been done in nuclear reactors or by ion accelerators, which is not a realistic solution in terms of cost, size and safety risks.

Beyond the separation of isotopes, one of the key questions is whether it is possible to develop a neutron source that is simple to operate and has a much lower price than rectors or accelerators.

Relying on significant advances in laser particle development over the past few years, Gérard Mourou, a professor at the École Politechnique University in Paris, winner of the 2018 Nobel Prize in Physics, and Toshiki Tajima, a scientific director at TAE, has come up with a proposal that addresses both problems. On the one hand, the transmutation takes place in a liquid, transparent molten salt, which allows continuous and reliable control of the nuclear reactions. On the other hand, he wants to solve the generation of neutrons needed to initiate transmutation based on laser acceleration.

László Rovó, Rector of the University of Szeged, called the initiative a project of historical importance. He highlighted the professional excellence of the project team, which was marked by the participation of Nobel Prize winner Gérard Mourou and world-renowned scientist Toshiki Tajima.

The joint research, as a national research program, is supported by the Hungarian government with a total of HUF 3.6 billion over three years.

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