Waste solution

With the disposal of nuclear waste high on the political agenda, a group of physicists claims to have discovered a technique that could make it harmless on timescales of just a few tens of years.

Professor Claus Rolfs, leader of the group at RuhrUniversity in Bochum, Germany, said his proposed method would mean that nuclear waste would not have to be buried deep underground.

The nuclear waste would be embedded in a metal and cooled to ultra-low temperatures. This speeds up the rate of decay of the radioactive material potentially cutting its half life by a factor of 100 or more.

Professor Rolfs said, ‘We are currently investigating radium-226, a hazardous component of spent nuclear fuel with a half-life of 1600 years. I calculate that using this technique could reduce the half-life to 100 years. At best, I have calculated that it could be reduced to as little as two years.‘

Rolf noticed that more nuclear fusion reactions happened in a particle collider experiment if the atomic nuclei were encased in metal and cooled. Rolfs believes that if cooling nuclei in metal enhances fusion, it could enhance the opposite reaction, namely speeding up the rate at which radioactive particles decay.

According to Rolfs, the lower temperature of the metal means that free electrons can get closer to the radioactive nuclei. These electrons accelerate positively charged particles towards the nuclei, increasing the probability of fusion reactions, or in the opposite case, accelerate particles that are being ejected from the nucleus.