Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Let's Eat Nuclear Tonight

One of the largest concerns with nuclear power, going right next to the concern that some of it could go Chernobyl/Fukushima/Maralinga and render chunks of the planet uninhabitable for tens or hundreds of thousands of years, is what exactly you do with nuclear waste once the plant is done with it. Because again, that stuff has a ludicrously long half-life. The waste has to go somewhere, and wherever that somewhere is will likely be rendered about as desirable to live in as the aforementioned. And that's about that. It's not like you can speed up the decay process.

Or perhaps you can. Meet californium, an otherwise obscure little element that's among the upper reaches of the periodic table, where the boxes are filled with elements that have comically short half-lives measured in microscopic fractions of a second and which can only be popped into existence a couple particles at a time because of it, because nothing past uranium (element 92) occurs naturally. Californium is element 98, with half lives that aren't so small that you can't actually do anything with it. Thomas Albrecht-Schmitt of Florida State seems to have found something to do with it. While it isn't cheap by any stretch of the imagination- a mere five milligrams of californium, supplied by Oak Ridge, required an expenditure of $1.4 million- what was found was that californium was able to bond with atom compounds that contain boron (such as plutonium borides or uranium borides), thereby altering their makeup, as well as separate their components. It also showed to be highly resistant to radiation.

What does that mean? It means you might be able to use californium to store and break down radioactive waste, making it able to be recycled. Though, again, this is going to be expensive as hell, maybe prohibitively so, to carry out on any kind of scale, it's absolutely going to be worth looking further into.

The source report is here, and boy am I glad someone else was able to translate the details for me, not merely because of the $32 paywall but also because the text that is available is pretty darned impenetrable to me.

By the way, I cannot resist the following: in the period from 2010-12, Florida State's football program spent an average of $64.8 million per year. Revenue was $113.4 million per year, meaning the football program brought in $37.8 million per year for the university... which would be enough for 135 milligrams of californium.

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