A group of scientists from the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), in Switzerland, might have discovered a new material which can isolate specific elements from nuclear waste in a simpler way than the existing methods. They tried around 125,000 options, and finally, they found a solid candidate which they called SBMOF-1.
According to the paper, it can successfully separate specific molecules from nuclear waste at room temperature which would make the process very cheap and safe. The study was published in the Journal Nature Communications.
According to the research team, SBMOF-1 could act as a sponge. The material is incredibly tiny, and it can contain individual molecules and thus separate them from a whole group. In their paper, the EPFL team said it had managed to absorb and isolate nuclear waste gasses such as Xenon and Krypton. But by far, the most extraordinary claim is that the process can be carried out at room temperature.
The material can be “programmed” to target specific molecules and then, to form crystal formations similar to how coral reefs work, which makes it perfect as a storage method. In other words, they can use this material to trap gas and then store it, like saving orange juice for later by transforming it into ice. This new method could help solve current waste problems, and even increase the production capacity.
A similar method was developed by a group of specialists from the Stony Brook University in which they managed to trap and store noble gasses. That study was published the Journal of American Chemical Society in May 2015.
Reprocessing nuclear fuel is extremely dangerous
The first time humanity created a nuclear reactor to produce plutonium was back in the 1940’s, during World War II. The scientists managed to develop a reprocessing method to extract the resulting plutonium from natural uranium fuel after a fission. The first method was called bismuth phosphate process which was designed and tested by the Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL). The process was very unstable and not efficient, but the times made it necessary.
After the war had ended, in 1949, the ORNL managed to create a new process with which both pure uranium and plutonium could be extracted by reprocessing already spent nuclear fuel. Its name is PUREX, and it is liquid-to-liquid extraction method. Also known as solvent extraction, the main idea is to mix the processed fuel with a variety of solutions which work by surrounding individual particles, like uranium and plutonium, isolating them from the rest of the “mixture” which allows the scientists to extract them. This is the standard method used in Europe, Russia, and Japan in modern days.
PUREX was modified to create similar methods of extractions such as UREX, TRUEX, DIAMEX, SANEX, and UNEX. The idea of recycling this kind of material from nuclear fuel is not that bad because it could potentially save a lot of money in the process, but the process does not hold to new regulatory measures established in the United States, and that is why nuclear re-processing is not practiced in North America.
Being able to obtain more plutonium or uranium is not necessarily a good thing
At first, it was thought that a particular kind of plutonium was necessary to make proper nuclear weapons, and it was called weapon-grade plutonium. However, it was later proved that significantly powerful weapons could be done out of reactor-grade elements. That is why President Gerald Ford made nuclear fuel re-processing and recycling indefinitely illegal in American soil. The Presidential directive entered in function on April 7, 1977. However, in 1999, the United States Department of Energy mixed the policy and authorized the creation of a mixed oxide (MOX) fuel making facility. It is not functioning at a commercial level, though, the investors and regulators are waiting to see if the plant can keep up with the required standards, both of production and safety.
With the amount of nuclear material available these days, there is not many authorities around the world can do to prevent it from fall into the wrong hands. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reports that there are a lot of sporadic cases regarding nuclear and radioactive material including traffic, theft, losses and many other unauthorized activities. In fact, the organization’s illicit trafficking database says there have been at least 1,266 incidents coming from 99 countries. There are too many terrorist organizations and cults that have tried to get the radioactive or nuclear material, such as Aum Shinrikyo, ISIS, and Al-Qaeda.
This excess is called Nuclear Proliferation, and the governments around the world have been trying to contain the problem. That is why the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty was established. Throughout a lot of limitations, the general idea is to limit the nuclear potential of individual nations. Countries that want to use atomic energy have to fulfill a long list of requirements, and when they do, a committee will decide the length of their nuclear projects.