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New technique can help reduce nuclear waste volume by 90 percent

New technique could help reduce large volumes of nuclear waste at the Fukushima plant in Japan.

By Ananth Baliga
New technique can help reduce nuclear waste volume by 90 percent
A new technique for nuclear waste storage could reduce waste volume by up to 90 percent and help clean up the Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan. (UPI/Air Photo Service Co. Ltd.) | License Photo

(UPI) -- Engineers have found a way to reduce the volume of nuclear waste by up to 90 percent by turning it into glass, which could lead to lower storage and disposal costs.

Researchers from the University of Sheffield have found that plutonium-contaminated waste mixed with blast-furnace slag, turning it into glass in a process called vitrification, would reduce waste volume by 85 to 90 percent.

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Contaminated waste includes filters, used personal protective equipment (PPE) and metal and masonry waste from decommissioning.

"Our method produces a robust and stable final product, because the thermal treatment destroys all plastics and organic material,” said lead researcher, Professor Neil Hyatt.

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"This is an advantage because it is difficult to predict with certainty how the degradation of plastic and organic materials affects the movement of plutonium underground," he added.

Currently, nuclear waste storage methods call for encapsulation in cement -- which considerably increases waste volume -- and burial. The new method can both cut costs and reduce eventual contamination.

Researchers hope their new technique, detailed in the Journal of Nuclear Materials, will be applicable in the cleanup of the large amount of mixed-wastes generated at the Fukushima plant in Japan.

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At present the amount of nuclear waste generated in the U.K. could fill Big Ben seven times over.

"Our process would reduce this waste volume to fit neatly within the confines of just one Big Ben tower," Hyatt said.

The researchers used cerium, which is known to behave similarly to plutonium, to develop the technique and are working on optimizing it for a full-scale demonstration. They are also planning small-scale experiments using plutonium.

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