Professor improves radioactive waste management techniques
A Rutgers professor and his research team are working to develop a simpler and cheaper way to contain radioactive waste.
Last fall, Ashutosh Goel, an assistant professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering and his research team, discovered they could create the ceramic material needed to immobilize radioactive iodine in a low-temperature lab setting, rather than a highly controlled environment.
The U.S. Department of Energy funded the project and research commenced in October 2014. The project’s objective was to address the problem of radioactive iodine in low-activity waste at the Hanford Site, Goel said.
The Hanford Site is a decommissioned nuclear complex in the southwestern portion of Washington. It was opened at the same time that the Manhattan Project commenced in 1942.
Before the facility’s deactivation at the end of the Cold War, the Hanford Site produced more than 56 million tons of high-level radioactive waste, according to USA Today News. Almost all of this waste is still present.
The Hanford Site is one of four large swaths of land in the United States where high-level radioactive waste is stored. There are other complexes located in Idaho, New York and South Carolina, according to the U.S Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board.
These four sites store nearly 100 million gallons of high-level radioactive waste and cover approximately 1,500 square miles of U.S. territory, according to reports by the U.S Department of Energy and the U.S. Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board.
Last fall, Goel and his team discovered a new way to create a ceramic powder that is used to immobilize radioactive iodine. The powder will help store the radioactive waste in these facilities, Goel said.
Goel said his team’s discovery is unique because it consisted of using relatively simple scientific techniques to achieve the final product.
“This particular ceramic has always been synthesized at about 700 to 800 degrees Celsius by means of very complex, expensive machinery,” he said. “My team and I found that we could create the same ceramic at ambient room temperature without using costly equipment.”
The new procedure depends on careful proportioning, Goel said.
“It’s really as simple as mixing the proper concentrations of the right materials together,” he said, “If you do this carefully, and in the correct order, eventually you get the same end result as the people using the fancy machinery.”
Charles Cao, a graduate student on Goel’s team, said the discovery is important because its implementation is highly feasible in large-scale industrial settings.
“Our procedure is cheaper and more energy efficient than methods used by almost everybody else today,” he said. “The benefits of our system become even more pronounced when you start to consider scaling up and using our techniques on a larger platform.”
Ultimately, Goel and Cao’s research seeks to answer the broader question of what countries with nuclear waste should do with the it.
Exposure to radiation can negatively alter environments as well cause genetic defects and cancer in humans and animals, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
Lisa Klein, a professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, said the problem of nuclear waste management is difficult to deal with because there are no obvious solutions.
“We’re continuously presented with better and better ways of dealing with nuclear waste because of technological improvements,” she said, “Unfortunately, thus far, we haven’t found a solution that is seen as being permanent, and this has resulted in us continuously kicking our problems down the road.”
Many radioactive isotopes that are byproducts of nuclear waste, have half-lives of millions of years. An isotope’s half-life is the time necessary for its radioactivity to decrease by half.
For example, iodine-129, the radioactive material Goel and Cao’s experiments sought to immobilize, has a half-life of about 15.7 million years, according to a report by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Klein said it is imperative to see nuclear waste management as a universal problem.
“People ... don’t seem to realize that nuclear waste isn’t a scientific problem,” Klein said. “It’s a societal problem, and it’s capable of impacting everybody if it isn’t addressed soon enough.”
Nicholas Simon is a School of Arts and Sciences sophomore. He is a contributing writer for The Daily Targum.