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Nuclear Waste Transmutation

August 17, 2009 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 87, Issue 33

The April 13 issue of C&EN contained a letter from Paul Cahill ("New Mission for Weapons Labs," page 3) and an important statement from Rep. Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.), that the term "climate change" is too vague and insufficiently urgent (page 36).

To avoid global coastline inundation, in 2005 I sent several letters to C&EN detailing the value of accelerator-driven transmutation of waste (ATW). Since then, the Spallation Neutron Source has been fully funded, so it may be time for C&EN to investigate the generation of electricity via the destruction of nuclear waste. The idea is not new ("Nuclear Wastes: Technologies for Separations and Transmutation," National Academies Press, 1996; available online at

Unlike most proposals to "close the nuclear fuel cycle," which require the purification of plutonium or bomb-making uranium isotopes, Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) determined that ATW can be most effectively implemented on complex mixtures of molten chlorine salts, such that the extraction of fissionable weapons materials is not needed, and nuclear terrorism is thwarted. LANL explained that ATW can eliminate the entire stockpile of nuclear waste, not in hundreds or thousands of years, but in less than a single human lifetime.

Many different designs for Accelerator Driven Reactors (ADR) exist, but the optimum design, which maximizes both electricity production and waste consumption while minimizing cost and downtime for the replacement of corroded system components, has yet to be determined.

Defining the optimum ADR is exactly the type of competition Cahill calls for, a peacetime Manhattan Project for the 21st century. It's time for nuclear chemistry to fulfill its promise, for the world to see "atom smashing" at its very finest.

David Kostecke
Henrietta, N.Y.



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