Californium could provide a safer way to dispose of nuclear waste

Monday, March 31, 2014 by: L.J. Devon, Staff Writer
Tags: californium, nuclear waste, uranium

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(NaturalNews) Disposing nuclear waste is tricky business; governments today are unsure of how to properly manage and store the toxic byproducts. The radioactive waste just can't be scraped into the garbage and tossed out in a landfill. At minimum, radioactive waste must be sealed in airtight steel or concrete containers and buried deep within the earth. It may even take tens of thousands of years for the waste to break down into less dangerous isotopes.

Government unsure how to manage radioactive waste

At the nuclear Waste Isolation Pilot Plant outside Carlsbad, NM, radiation alarms have been sounding off since February. Even after being encased in salt formations 2,150 feet below the surface of the desert, nuclear waste can still put off dangerous radioactivity into the environment. In March 2014, federal officials made it clear that "slightly elevated" levels of airborne radioactivity were detected in February. They agreed that occasional low-level releases may be anticipated now and in the future.

Californium could help countries manage uranium waste fuel

According to the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), radioactive waste fuel is often encased and kept at the nuclear reactor sites, where it awaits disposal. The US Department of Energy is still unsure of how to manage and dispose of radioactive uranium fuel waste.

Breakthrough findings from Florida State University (FSU) could help remedy the situation, allowing government officials to manage and break down uranium fuel more readily. The answer comes in the form of a little known element on the period table called californium. Discovered in the early 1950s, californium may be the secret ingredient to helping countries store radioactive waste more effectively. On top of that, there is positive evidence showing how californium could help scientists recycle the radioactive waste into fuel.

Californium could help scientists recycle nuclear waste into fuel

NEI reiterates the importance of proper nuclear waste disposal in a statement on their website: "Whether nuclear fuel is used only once or recycled for subsequent use, disposal of high-level radioactive byproducts in a permanent geologic repository is necessary. Underground disposal in a specially designed facility is an essential element of a sustainable, integrated used nuclear fuel management program."

In their search for sustainable recycling methods, scientists from FSU discovered a breakdown process that matched what they were looking for.

In their research, several trial and error experiments were conducted investigating californium's resistance to radiation damage. The element basically bonds with materials in uranium fuel, changing its structure and breaking down the materials within it.

They realized that californium has the potential to separate specific elements in the radioactive waste, allowing for the isolation of a specific byproduct that could be reused as fuel in power plants.

"This has real-world application," Thomas Albrecht-Schmitt, a professor at FSU and lead author of the study, said in a statement. "We're changing how people look at californium and how it can be used."

A brief background of the little known element, californium

Californium got its name from California scientists who first isolated the element in 1950. The scientists, from the University of California, Berkeley, combined curium with alpha particles, creating the radioactive metallic element called californium. As the heaviest element to occur naturally on Earth, californium has an atomic number of 98 and is denoted by "Cf" on the bottom of the period table.

Currently, scientists use the element primarily for producing neutrons. Through a process called neutron activation, scientists use californium-252 to produce 170 million neutrons per minute, allowing for easier identification of gold and silver ores.

The new research from FSU may one day invite californium onto nuclear reactor sites across the world, as humanity finds ways to manage, recycle and store nuclear waste.

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