From thousands to hundreds

A bid is underway to establish a European consortium to build a prototype transmutation reactor, which could reduce the radioactivity of nuclear waste from thousands of years to just a few centuries.

The Myrrha project, based at the Belgian government’s nuclear research centre SCK-CEN in Mol, is developing a transmutation reactor, due to be completed by 2012.

Time reduction

The nuclear incineration system uses a sub-atomic particle accelerator to bombard the waste with neutrons, causing it to decay into less radioactive substances.

This would dramatically reduce the length of time the waste must be securely stored, said Dr Hamid Ait Abderrahim, head of the Myrrha project.

But with the cost of designing and building the reactor predicted to be around 450 million Euros (£280m), the researchers are hoping it can be transformed into a Europe-wide scheme, supported by the European Commission, said Ait Abderrahim. ‘We would like to make it a European project and share the work among the various bodies with experience in this area. France, Belgium and Italy have experts in accelerator technology, while BNFL in the UK has considerable fuel expertise,’ he said.

Ait Abderrahim asked European commissioners to establish a consortium to develop the project, which is already partly funded by the EU’s fifth Framework Research Programme, when they visited the research centre this week. The energy and transport commissioner Loyola de Palacio and research commissioner Philippe Busquin visited SCK-CEN to review the Myrrha project and the centre’s studies into the deep geological disposal of nuclear waste within clay.

Transmutation involves separating the highly radioactive substances within nuclear waste, such as plutonium, neptunium and americium, from the reusable uranium. These elements are then placed into the reactor as pellets, where they are bombarded with neutrons. The neutrons are produced when a heavy metal such as tungsten is hit with a proton beam from the accelerator.

Economic feasibility

Pre-design of the reactor is due to be completed by the end of 2004, to be followed by three years of detailed design, four years of construction and a final year to commission the reactor, said Ait Abderrahim.

‘In its first years of use it will be mainly a study machine to demonstrate the technological and economic feasibility of nuclear incineration. Later it could also be used to begin burning some materials,’ he said.

The Myrrha demonstrator will be 60MW, but a country the size of Belgium would need a 600MW reactor to burn all its nuclear waste in this way. ‘Countries would need 10 per cent of their nuclear capacity to be installed as accelerator driven systems,’ he said.

Fabio Fabbi, a spokesman for the European Commission, said extending the Myrrha project to cover the rest of Europe was an option that was still to be discussed. ‘We believe Europe should move towards the underground disposal of radioactive waste, and we need one final research effort on this. Myrrha is one project that might be pushed by the Commission, but no final decision has been taken,’ said Fabbi.