Issue Date: December 24, 2012
Technical Solution To Nuclear Waste
Regarding the article “Talk, No Action on Nuclear Waste Plan,” the issue of what has been done with nuclear waste is largely political, not technical (C&EN, Oct. 1, page 44). Storage of raw wastes, regardless of method or site, is not the optimum way to handle the problem. The answer is to recycle the waste to reduce possible hazards and at the same time recover useful by-products.
In the early 1970s at Argonne National Lab, a group including E. Philip Horwitz was researching a practical answer to this problem. The approach taken was to first separate the waste into individual components using ion-exchange chromatography. Because the waste materials were too “hot” for traditional polymer-based ion-exchange particles to remain stable, separations were developed with liquid ion-exchangers supported on porous silica microspheres. The Horwitz group proposed that the waste components be separation-classified so that appropriate elements could be recycled for production of nuclear energy; useful, short half-life elements (e.g., platinum) would be stored until no longer radioactive; and “hot,” long half-life materials would be encased in ceramic blocks for stable long-term underground storage. Technical papers describing the excellent separation work by the Horwitz group support the viability of this approach.
The ion-exchange approach was so successful in the lab that efforts were initiated to set up demonstration plants to show that the method could be scaled up for possible large-scale processing. Unfortunately, in 1974 an oil crisis struck the U.S. (Some may remember the difficulty in obtaining gasoline for automobiles.) Apparently in response to that crisis, the Argonne team was suddenly told by the Commerce Department to abandon nuclear waste research and focus on fossil fuels. As far as I know, a comprehensive program using separation technology has never been reinitiated by our government as a target project for handling nuclear wastes.
If interest in solving the nuclear waste problem is genuine, the present political positions must be altered and technology refocused. Had the $12 billion spent on waste storage been directed toward a technical solution, we would not now be so concerned about nuclear wastes. What is needed now is to focus efforts for a technical rather than a political solution, the latter having totally failed.
Joseph J. Kirkland
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