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Discover how nuclear energy is being revolutionized with the Nobel-winning scientist's technology, reducing 80% of radioactive waste and ensuring safer and more efficient management

Written by Noel Budeguer
Published 29/05/2024 às 09:36
Nuclear energy - nuclear waste - nuclear waste - radiation
Nuclear innovation: technology from Nobel-winning scientist that reduces radioactive waste by 80%. Learn how this impacts waste management and nuclear energy safety

Nuclear innovation: technology from Nobel-winning scientist that reduces radioactive waste by 80%. Learn how this impacts waste management and nuclear energy safety

Carlo Rubbia is 90 years old. In 1984, he won the Nobel Prize in Physics for his discovery of the W and Z bosons. Between 1989 and 1993, he was director general of CERN. Now, he could revolutionize nuclear energy with a new type of reactor that radically reduces radioactive waste.

The problem of nuclear waste

The operational safety of nuclear power plants tends to receive the most attention, especially since the Chernobyl accident, but it is the management of spent nuclear fuel that often causes the most headaches.

Nuclear waste remains radioactive for hundreds of thousands of years after all of its useful energy has been extracted. Therefore, countries like Finland, Sweden and Spain are building underground cemeteries at great depths to store them permanently.

The Transmutex solution

What Carlo Rubbia proposes, and which the Swiss company Transmutex will now try to commercialize, is to combine a particle accelerator with a subcritical nuclear reactor to be able to use a slightly radioactive element as fission fuel.

Like alchemists trying to transform metals into gold, Transmutex technology uses the particle accelerator to transmute thorium into a uranium isotope that can be processed immediately, but without producing plutonium or other highly radioactive waste.

Investor Explanation

Steel Atlas, one of the project's investors, explains it like this:

Safer than fission and more practical than fusion, transmutation is based on a two-step process that is ideal for exploiting the neglected common metal thorium as fuel: first, the absorption of a neutron that transmutes thorium into isotope of uranium 233 (U-238), the stable element found in nature, which then undergoes fission, producing energy.

On the other hand, uranium-based nuclear power (which uses U-235 or U-238) primarily involves a direct fission process. U-235, when hit by a neutron, undergoes fission immediately, dividing into smaller nuclei and releasing energy, without an intermediate transmutation step.

80% less radioactivity

Transmutex's technology was reviewed for months by Nagra, the Swiss national body that manages nuclear waste. Nagra confirmed that Transmutex can reduce the volume of nuclear waste by 80%, as well as the time that this waste remains radioactive: from hundreds of thousands to 500 years.

An incalculable impact

The most interesting thing about transmutation technology is that it could be applied to 99% of existing nuclear waste, which would have a global impact on nuclear waste management while minimizing the proliferation of new waste.

As for operational safety, the particle accelerator allows an immediate stop of the transmutation reaction within two milliseconds, and the liquid lead cooling in the reactor has the property of self-cooling in the event of a malfunction.

It won't be an easy path

Support from the Swiss government and rounds of private financing gave Transmutex a boost. The technology comes at an ideal time when the world is trying to move away from fossil fuels, but at the same time demands more energy than ever.

However, Transmutex needs to overcome two major obstacles. Opposition to fission to obtain nuclear energy, with countries such as Germany and Spain closing their plants. And the high cost. Although Carlo Rubbia had access to a $5 billion particle accelerator at CERN, no nuclear plant has access to these luxuries, perhaps not even on a small scale. Therefore, strong state support will be needed.

Images

Transmutex, Markus Pösse (CC BY-SA 3.0)

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Noel Budeguer

Of Argentine nationality, I am a news writer and specialist in the field. I cover topics such as science, oil, gas, technology, the automotive industry, renewable energy and all trends in the job market.

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