A brand new technique to lure radioactive waste in minerals for long-term storage

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There are round 440 nuclear energy crops working in 32 nations world wide, supplying some 10% of the world’s electrical energy. One other 60 reactors are beneath building, and 300 extra are proposed.

Australia has just one reactor, used for analysis and medical functions. However Australia usually produces greater than 5,000 tons of uranium every year. That is about 9% of the world’s whole.

Uranium mining and processing, and nuclear energy plant operations, can produce a spread of radioactive parts (known as radionuclides). These could also be long-lasting hazards if launched into the setting. Liquid radioactive wastes current a specific problem: they typically comprise a combination of radionuclides, and few applied sciences can reliably seize and safely comprise these contaminants shortly and effectively.

We have now invented a quick course of to seize radionuclides from liquid waste in a clay-like mineral, which may then be baked to type a steady materials for disposal and long-term storage. The analysis is revealed in Scientific Stories and can quickly be introduced on the Waste Administration Symposium, the world’s largest radioactive waste administration convention.

Catching radioactive parts

It has lengthy been identified some minerals can seize sure radionuclides. Nonetheless, this course of typically includes passing contaminated water via quite a few filters full of these supplies.

In distinction, our expertise (known as EUREECA) makes use of an strategy the place a clay-like mineral known as a layered double hydroxide is fashioned inside radionuclide-contaminated waters. These minerals are a pure absorbent that may take away a spread of radionuclides without delay, incorporating these and different contaminants as constructing blocks of their construction.

This straightforward strategy has many benefits over standard applied sciences. In follow, two widespread industrial chemical compounds are added to the contaminated water. A response happens in a matter of seconds to supply the layered double hydroxide mineral with the radionuclides trapped inside.

Importantly, the mineral usually contains lower than 0.5% of the mass of the handled water. This implies the contaminants turn into a whole lot of instances extra concentrated.

The mineral can be simply separated from the water utilizing standard industrial separation methods.

In research utilizing wastewater from an Australian uranium mine, the mineral contained as much as 1% uranium—a better focus than within the mine’s ore. A number of different contaminants had been additionally captured, together with a spread of radionuclides liberated throughout mining and related actions.

A new way to trap radioactive waste in minerals for long-term storage
Managing liquid radioactive waste is a big concern for uranium mines. Credit score: Shutterstock

Baking for long-term storage

After the contaminants have been captured within the layered double hydroxide mineral, they should be locked up in perpetuity.

That is the following step of the EUREECA course of: baking the mineral to rework it, like pottery in a kiln.

We heated the mineral to greater than 1,300℃, just like that of a Hawaiian lava move and, with colleagues at Curtin College, analyzed the way it modified on the atomic stage. A number of fascinating modifications had occurred.

The primary was that the layered double hydroxide was reworked into three separate minerals: olivine, periclase and spinel. This can be a mixture of minerals usually discovered within the decrease mantle, about 2,500km beneath Earth’s floor.

These minerals will not be solely steady at excessive temperatures and pressures, but in addition largely immune to radiation harm.

When the baked minerals cooled down, we found the radionuclides had been concentrated even additional. Uranium, thorium, lead and different contaminants had been now squeezed into new minerals fashioned on the microscopically skinny boundaries between the olivine, periclase and spinel.

In these boundary areas, the focus of radionuclides was round 50,000 instances better than within the authentic uranium-bearing wastewaters.

Simpler decontamination

Our course of has many potential purposes for seize, containment and storage of soluble radioactive wastes in perpetuity. Past treating uranium mine wastewater, it could possibly be used to seize and comprise radionuclides from medical waste streams.

It could even have been of nice use after the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear catastrophe in 2011, which generated large quantities of complicated liquid waste.

Slightly than utilizing a number of steps and substantial, typically complicated water remedy procedures and infrastructure, the EUREECA expertise might have been quickly deployed to decontaminate the water and take away radionuclides into stable minerals for long-term storage.

Extra data:
G. B. Douglas et al, Engineered mineralogical interfaces as radionuclide repositories, Scientific Stories (2023). DOI: 10.1038/s41598-023-29171-1

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