Know-how for slashing nuclear energy plant waste wins Swiss backing

Unlock the Editor’s Digest for freeRoula Khalaf, Editor of the FT, selects her favorite tales on this weekly e-newsletter.Switzerland has endorsed a protracted sought-after expertise generally known as “nuclear transmutation” to dramatically scale back the quantity of radioactive waste from atomic energy crops. Nagra, the Swiss nationwide physique that manages nuclear waste, stated it had spent a number of months exploring the tactic proposed by Geneva-based start-up Transmutex and had concluded that the expertise may minimize the quantity of extremely radioactive waste by 80 per cent. Storing extremely radioactive materials for tons of of 1000’s of years has at all times been an enormous and costly drawback for the nuclear trade. Whereas greater than 20 international locations, together with the US, France, the UK and South Korea, agreed on the UN COP28 local weather negotiations final yr to triple nuclear power capability by 2050, there’s at the moment no long-term storage website in operation. Finland is building the world’s first such facility, which it says will safely guard waste for 100,000 years. “Transmutex is making an attempt to unravel the issue we’ve got had for a protracted whereas in nuclear, which isn’t security, truly, however waste,” stated Albert Wenger, an investor at Union Sq. Ventures, which is financing the start-up.  Nuclear transmutation is the conversion of 1 factor into a unique kind, generally known as an isotope, or one other factor altogether. Transmutation has been an idea of fascination for the reason that days when alchemists tried in useless to show base metals into gold.The concept of utilizing the method for managing nuclear waste has been a topic of curiosity for many years. A number of international locations have launched vital programmes to discover transmutation, based on the Nuclear Vitality Company of the intergovernmental OECD. Transmutex proposes to make use of a particle accelerator coupled to a reactor to mix subatomic neutron particles with thorium, a barely radioactive steel. This produces a uranium isotope that then fissions, releasing power. In contrast to uranium, thorium doesn’t produce plutonium, or different extremely radioactive waste.“If it may be demonstrated to work, you mainly get one of the best of each worlds,” stated Jack Henderson, chair of the nuclear physics group on the UK’s Institute of Physics and a researcher on the College of Surrey. “You’ll be able to scale back the extent of radioactivity produced by burning up a few of the longer-lived isotopes produced in your reactor — and also you get power out on the identical time.”Franklin Servan-Schreiber, chief government of Transmutex, stated transmutation was the “first expertise that has been taken critically by a nuclear waste company to cut back the quantity of nuclear waste”. He stated it might be used on 99 per cent of the world’s nuclear waste and would scale back the time it stays radioactive to “lower than 500 years”. “That is very vital as a result of you may assure waterproof storage for 1,000 years,” he stated. He added that the method additionally lowered the quantity of waste by 80 per cent. Servan-Schreiber stated the thought behind the method had been conceived by Carlo Rubbia, the previous director-general of the Cern particle physics laboratory. A possible impediment to the viability of transmutation is the price of set-up. The worth of constructing a reactor coupled with a particle accelerator is unclear, however the Massive Hadron Collider at Cern value about $4.75bn. The research undertaken by Nagra and Transmutex discovered that the expertise may “dramatically scale back the quantity of high-graded radioactive waste and scale back the lifetime for a really vital a part of that waste class tremendously,” stated Matthias Braun, head of Nagra. Switzerland voted in a 2017 referendum to not substitute its present 4 nuclear reactors however Servan-Schreiber stated the outcomes gave “credence to this expertise for different international locations”, including that he was in talks with at the very least three international locations over a doable deal.

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