Technology to reduce waste from nuclear power plants gets Swiss support

Unlock Editor’s Digest for free

Switzerland has backed a highly sought-after technology known as “nuclear transmutation” to dramatically reduce the amount of radioactive waste from atomic power plants.

Nagra, the Swiss national body that manages nuclear waste, said it had spent several months exploring the method proposed by the Geneva-based start-up Transmutex and had concluded that the technology could reduce the volume of waste highly 80 percent radioactive.

Storing highly radioactive material for hundreds of thousands of years has always been a huge and costly problem for the nuclear industry.

While more than 20 countries, including the United States, France, the United Kingdom and South Korea, agreed at the UN COP28 climate negotiations last year to triple nuclear power capacity by 2050, there is currently no site long-term storage in operation.

Finland is building the world’s first such facility, which it claims will safely protect waste for 100,000 years.

“Transmutex is trying to solve the problem we’ve had for a long time in the nuclear sector, which is actually not safety, but waste,” said Albert Wenger, an investor at Union Square Ventures, which is financing the new company.

Nuclear transmutation is the conversion of an element into a different form, known as an isotope, or into another element entirely. Transmutation has been a fascinating concept since the days when alchemists tried in vain to convert base metals into gold.

The idea of ​​using this technique for nuclear waste management has been a topic of interest for decades. Several countries have launched major programs to explore transmutation, according to the OECD intergovernmental Nuclear Energy Agency.

Transmutex proposes using a reactor-coupled particle accelerator to combine subatomic neutron particles with thorium, a slightly radioactive metal. This produces an isotope of uranium which then fissions, releasing energy. Unlike uranium, thorium does not produce plutonium or other highly radioactive waste.

“If you can show it works, you basically get the best of both worlds,” said Jack Henderson, chair of the nuclear physics group at the UK Institute of Physics and a researcher at the University of Surrey. “You can reduce the level of radioactivity produced by burning some of the longer-lived isotopes produced in your reactor, and at the same time obtain energy.”

Franklin Servan-Schreiber, CEO of Transmutex, said transmutation was “the first technology that a nuclear waste agency has taken seriously to reduce the amount of nuclear waste.”

He said it could be used on 99 percent of the world’s nuclear waste and would reduce the time it remains radioactive to “less than 500 years.”

“This is very important because waterproof storage can be guaranteed for 1,000 years,” he said. He added that the process also reduced waste volume by 80 percent.

Servan-Schreiber said the idea behind the process was conceived by Carlo Rubbia, former director general of Cern’s particle physics laboratory.

A potential obstacle to the viability of transmutation is the cost of installation. The price of building a reactor coupled with a particle accelerator is unclear, but CERN’s Large Hadron Collider cost around $4.75 billion.

The study by Nagra and Transmutex found that the technology could “dramatically reduce the volume of high-quality radioactive waste and greatly reduce the useful life of a very significant part of that waste category,” said Matthias Braun, director of Nagra.

Switzerland voted in a 2017 referendum not to replace its four existing nuclear reactors, but Servan-Schreiber said the results gave “credibility to this technology for other countries,” adding that it was in talks with at least three countries about a possible agreement.

Leave a Comment