Nasty nuke tamed by lasers

Scientists from the University of Strathclyde have successfully turned Iodine-129, a major waste product in the nuclear power industry, into the safer isotope Iodine-128 using laboratory lasers.

Scientists from the University of Strathclyde, collaborating with an international team from Imperial College, Rutherford Appleton Laboratory(RAL), ITU (Karlsruhe) and the University of Jena, have successfully turned Iodine-129, a major waste product in the nuclear power industry, into the more friendly isotope Iodine-128 using laboratory lasers.

This is the first time an isotope has been transmuted. The team announced their discovery in The Institute of Physics’ Journal of Physics D: Applied Physics.

Iodine-129 has a half-life of 15.7 million years, making it difficult and dangerous to dispose of. Currently, it is encased in glass and buried deep in the earth.

Professor Ken Ledingham and colleagues irradiated Iodine-129 with a laser beam and succeeded in turning it into Iodine-128 which, with a half-life of just 25 minutes, can be safely handled and disposed of within an hour.

The next step for Professor Ledingham is to develop this technique on an industrial scale and with other radioactive isotopes. He is currently working on a proposal to seek funding to develop a laser system large enough to cope with the volume of Iodine-129 produced by the nuclear power industry.

Professor Ledingham said: ‘The discovery we published today shows for the first time that we can transmute isotopes using lasers. Now we need to scale up our methods so that we can deal with the sort of volumes likely to be produced by the nuclear power industry in the future. Using lasers is a relatively cheap and very efficient way of disposing of nuclear waste’.

This discovery will also provide an easy way of producing the isotopes needed to operate the PET scanners used in hospitals and in research. These isotopes are currently manufactured in machines called cyclotrons, only four of which exist in the UK. Professor Ledingham hopes to be able to apply his technique to the production of these isotopes quickly and believes that this will be a practical reality within the next five years.