The government-backed Riken research institute is set to launch experiments on converting radioactive substances contained in high-level nuclear waste generated at atomic power stations into precious metals starting fiscal 2018, it has been learned.
The method, which is dubbed "modern alchemy," is said to be theoretically viable but hasn't been put into practical use. If realized, the formula is expected to contribute to trimming nuclear waste and even making effective use of it.
The experiment will be part of the Cabinet Office's program to promote innovative research and development, called "Impulsing Paradigm Change through Disruptive Technologies (ImPACT)" program. In the initial stage of the demonstration experiment, palladium-107, a radioactive material contained in nuclear waste and whose half-life is 6.5 million years, will be turned into nontoxic palladium-106, which is commonly used in dental therapy, jewelry goods and exhaust gas purification catalysts.
Using an accelerator at the Riken Nishina Center for Accelerator-Based Science in Wako, Saitama Prefecture, the scientists will attempt to convert palladium-107 into palladium-106 by irradiating the former with deuteron beams, in what is called the "nuclear transformation" process. The experiment is set to be the world's first of its kind on nuclear transformation of palladium, according to Riken officials.
The researchers will compile the outcome of the experiment as early as the fall of 2018 after confirming the ratio of palladium successfully transformed and other results.
As nuclear waste is highly radioactive, the government is currently looking into methods to isolate such waste deep into the ground after sealing it in specially designed containers. If the nuclear transformation process proves viable, it could contribute to reducing nuclear waste and making efficient use of it.
It remains to be seen whether nuclear transformation will prove successful just as in theory and if the process can be turned into practical use at a low cost. In the past, a nuclear transformation experiment was carried out on minor actinides, or "heavy" nuclear waste, at the Joyo experimental fast reactor in Oarai, Ibaraki Prefecture, but the upcoming experiment will be the country's first using fission products, or "light" nuclear waste.
ImPACT program manager Reiko Fujita said, "We are still at the basic research stage and are far from putting it into practical use. We will, however, move a step forward if we manage to obtain data through our experiment."