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Halving Half Lives 406

Posted by ScuttleMonkey
from the quarterlife-the-new-standard dept.
An anonymous reader writes "PhysicsWeb is reporting that German scientists may have found a way to significantly reduce the radioactive decay time of nuclear waste. This could render the waste harmless in just tens of years and make disposal much less difficult as opposed to current standards. From the article: 'Their proposed technique - which involves slashing the half-life of an alpha emitter by embedding it in a metal and cooling the metal to a few degrees kelvin - could therefore avoid the need to bury nuclear waste in deep repositories, a hugely expensive and politically difficult process. But other researchers are skeptical and believe that the technique contradicts well-established theory as well as experiment.'"
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Halving Half Lives

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  • As from TFA,

    It states that this occurs also when the device is stored in metal instead of an insulator.

    Wouldn't this cause a larger issue with potential radioactive containment?
  • why bury it all? (Score:2, Insightful)

    by nocomment (239368)
    What's wrong with just launching it into the sun?
    • by nmb3000 (741169) <nmb3000@that-google-mail-site.com> on Tuesday August 01, 2006 @07:33PM (#15828472) Homepage Journal
      One word: Challenger [wikipedia.org].

      On the bright side, it would seriously reduce the lobbying strength of the AARP.
      • Re:why bury it all? (Score:5, Informative)

        by geekoid (135745) <dadinportland @ y a hoo.com> on Tuesday August 01, 2006 @07:50PM (#15828535) Homepage Journal
        I had the pleasure of witnessing a container test.

        they took this container, put it into a rocket that was on it' side, and then launched it into a specially designed bunker.i.e a real think ass wall.

        the container survived without a leak.

        It is much easier to create a device that will survive a traunmatic event then it is to create one for people.

        They could just send it down to the Mariennes trench. Naturally people with no knowledge of radiation, or the trench would complain about it.

        • by grcumb (781340) on Tuesday August 01, 2006 @08:01PM (#15828594) Homepage Journal
          "They could just send it down to the Mariennes trench. Naturally people with no knowledge of radiation, or the trench would complain about it."

          The Marianas Trench [wikipedia.org]? Are you insane, man? Don't you remember what happened [imdb.com] last time we dumped nukes in the Pacific?

        • Normal barrels are fine for nuclear waste disposal in the deep ocean, they rust and leak over time - but the ocean is so vast that it makes no difference. The oceans already have radioactive materials in them, all our nuclear waste would not make a measurable difference.
        • by PIPBoy3000 (619296) on Tuesday August 01, 2006 @08:41PM (#15828758)
          Well, it's currently illegal to dump waste at sea due to the London Convention [londonconvention.org], so don't expect this solution any time soon.

          Also, subduction zones aren't particularly stable and predictable, so the waste would likely spew about rather than being neatly sucked away. There was an article on New Scientist [newscientist.com] about this.
        • How much did the container weigh compared to the radioactive material inside? For sending the stuff up in a rocket, this matters hugely.
        • Re:why bury it all? (Score:5, Interesting)

          by Tatarize (682683) on Tuesday August 01, 2006 @11:01PM (#15829215) Homepage
          It's all pretty much a waste of time. Nuclear waste is really just 99% active and usuable nuclear fuel. IFR [wikipedia.org], or 4th generation nuclear power generation would easily use most of that stuff up. This is one of the reasons why launching it into the sun or burying it in a subduction zone is so stupid. It's still very valuable. Sure the stuff is safe where we put it, but using it up as fuel in a very safe, impossible to meltdown, non-proliferating, safe nuclear reactor.

          Even the old crap we built 30 years ago is still pretty safe and pretty good. And the tech has only gotten better... while at the same time the coal stuff (though a better) is still poisoning the planet. Nuclear power = Green power.
    • by billstewart (78916) on Tuesday August 01, 2006 @07:51PM (#15828539) Journal
      There are lots of different kinds of nuclear waste - the worst excesses are things like uranium mines and the US's Hanford Washington and Rocky Flats compounds, plus wherever the Russian and Chinese nuclear weapons development work was done, with huge volumes of fairly high-level waste and even huger volumes of low-level waste. Leave aside the risks of rocket failure, we simply don't have the payload capacity to haul significant quantities of it into Earth orbit, much less out of the gravity well to take it on a sundive.
      • by Anonymous Coward
        Do we have the necessary infrastructure to freeze down nuclear waste in significant quantities as proposed in the article?
    • Re:why bury it all? (Score:5, Interesting)

      by protohiro1 (590732) on Tuesday August 01, 2006 @07:52PM (#15828543) Homepage Journal
      I know this is snark...but...aside from the challenger issue, it would be highly cost-prohibitive. The world produces about 12,000 pounds of nuclear waste a year. At current rates this would cost about $250 billion just to get into orbit. The US has It would be much more expensive to actually escape the earth and get it to the sun, even considering the sun's gravity could do a lot of the work.

      Wikipedia disagrees: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nuclear_waste#Space_d isposal [wikipedia.org], although I am skeptical, at current rates to get the 600,000 metric tonnes of waste that the DoE has into orbit would cost about $10 trillion.
      • Re:why bury it all? (Score:3, Interesting)

        by geekoid (135745)
        If you designed a rocket just for this specific purpose, it would be cheaper.

      • Re:why bury it all? (Score:5, Interesting)

        by flooey (695860) on Tuesday August 01, 2006 @08:20PM (#15828669)
        The world produces about 12,000 pounds of nuclear waste a year. At current rates this would cost about $250 billion just to get into orbit.

        Your numbers are a bit off. A single Delta IV Heavy rocket can carry about 28,000 pounds to GTO, or about 20,000 to escape orbit, at a cost of around $250 million.
        • Unfortunately it is much worse than just getting it into LEO or even Geo sync. First you need to put it on an escape trajectory to get it out of earth's gravity well. The problem then is it's floating around in a near Earth orbit (like those pesky asteroids we keep worrying about). After a few years/decades/millenia it could find its way back down.
          To really get rid of it by dropping it in the sun will require you to cancel out its orbital velocity relative to the sun, 66,000mph! You could reduce that so
        • by The Snowman (116231) * on Tuesday August 01, 2006 @10:03PM (#15829046) Homepage

          Keep in mind that you aren't going to load up a rocket to full capacity with nuclear waste. You need to contain it somehow, preferably in multiple boxes that will protect it in case of an accident on launch (or at least until it escapes Earth's gravity and the Sun's gravity takes over). Even then you're better off not loading it to capacity anyway, to make very sure you have enough lift and fuel to achieve its mission.

          Also keep in mind that as far as I know all of our launch vehicles are designed to carry payloads into orbit, not all the way to the sun. Yes, we launch stuff to Mars and other planets, but not to the Sun. We would have to design and test a launch vehicle (even if just a second stage vehicle that would go from orbit to the Sun) specifically for the task at hand.

          Finally, we have a large backlog of waste material that needs to go as well. This means more rockets to get the job done, which means more money. This also assumes we can't recycle some of the waste, which is a very real possibility.

      • by Tiger4 (840741)
        You are off be a few orders of magnitude. The cost of one pund to orbit is around $10,000 - 20,000. So 12,000 pounds to orbit would cost about $120,000,000 - $240,000,000. That is assuming a simpler launcher, no special container provisons, and not throwing it out of orbit into the sun. Those things might double the cost, in the worst case. It is still under a billion dollars.

        On the other hand, I think throwing the stuff away is foolish. We need to store it in case we come up with a way to reuse it.
      • "...get it to the sun, even considering the sun's gravity could do a lot of the work."

        The sun's gravity is counteracted by the orbital velocity of the earth, from which said rocket is launched. It can't be counted on for a single erg.
    • Nothing really wrong with putting it into the sun, it's just very expensive. Oddly enough, it's cheaper to stick it into Alpha Centauri ( or just about any star but the sun ).


      Who modded parent offtopic???
    • > What's wrong with just launching it into the sun?

      If we pollute the sun we'll really be in trouble!
    • by mrbooze (49713)

      What's wrong with just launching it into the sun?

      Aside from the risks and costs of such a venture, here's an even more important question? How do we know that dumping material into the sun might not somehow affect the sun in some way?

      Granted, it seems crazy to imagine it might, but who knows? I don't know if we have a lot of experimental data on the subject. If dumping heavy radioactive elements into the sun *did* have some long-term effect, it seems we'd be about as screwed as we could possibly be.

      We mi

    • by theLOUDroom (556455)
      What's wrong with just launching it into the sun?

      Only a person who:
      A) Has no idea how heavy uranium is
      B) Has no idea how much fuel it takes to put even a pound into orbit
      C) Doesn't understand sheer idiocy of strapping a large amount of radioactive matter to a gaint fuel tank
      would suggest such an idea.

      (It's not that I'm calling the poster stupid. Just his idea. It's like a man who knows nothing about electricity asking why you can't stick a fork in a wall outlet.)

      The idea is deeply flawed on man
  • Um (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Geoffreyerffoeg (729040) on Tuesday August 01, 2006 @07:31PM (#15828465)
    Is this wise? Decreasing the half-life means increasing the radioactivity. Given the option of living near a nuclear waste site and living near the lab where this is performed, I'd choose the former....

    In order to get the radiation down to safe levels, you have to out-radiate everything up to that level. Same radiation, doesn't matter if it takes the normal amount of time or less.
    • Re:Um (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward
      True, but it's easier to contain the radiation for a short time then to design a system to contian it for a long time.
    • Re:Um (Score:2, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward
      I'd have thought problems would come from needing to keep it cold, while the radiation is trying to heat it up.
      • Yeah, it'd be fairly trivial to shield a special facility for the short period of time needed to process the waste this way.

        Meanwhile, you are going to be releasing a fair amount of energy doing it this quickly.

        I've also heard about methods that focus on bombarding the substance with more radiation, a sort of 'tipping the scales' type operation.
      • Re:Um (Score:5, Interesting)

        by RsG (809189) on Tuesday August 01, 2006 @07:54PM (#15828564)
        Actually, if the GP is correct and they are increasing the radiation output in proportion to the reduction in the half life, what's to stop us from harnessing that output as power? The major reason we can't use many forms of nuclear waste as a power source is the difficulty in converting low levels of radiation into usable power; fast fissioning material on the other hand is perfectly usable as a fuel source.

        Of course, the temperature of the storage device poses a major problem (if we have to supercool it, then harnessing the radiation as a heat source is right out). Assuming we can't do this at a higher temperature, and I don't understand the article well enough to make a guess here, then we'd have to find a way to convert the energy output of the waste into usable power without heating the storage vessel to the point where the accelerated half life drops back to normal.

        I wonder if there is some way to allow the radiation to escape the waste storage vessel and transfer it's energy into something useful...
    • Re:Um (Score:5, Insightful)

      by LWATCDR (28044) on Tuesday August 01, 2006 @07:48PM (#15828525) Homepage Journal
      Actually yes it is wise.
      It is easy to shield high level waste. Water will work just fine. If you only have to store it for a few years then it really becomes a simple problem.
      The sad thing is I doubt that this could work they way the say it will. It really needs to be tested.
      I could understand if they used a good neutron emitter like beryllium. When an Alpha particle hits that you get neutrons. The neutrons could then cause an increase in decay type reactions, if it was captured by a nuclei of the the substance that you wanted to degrade. Even that is a big maybe since I am just thinking of ways it could work without doing any math.
      Even then it seems like you wouldn't get anything like what this guy is claiming.

      • Alpha and Beta emissions are easy enough to shield. If this method actually works, you can store it for a mere hundred years instead of a couple of thousand years before it's sufficiently decayed that it's less dangerous, with much lower risks of eventual leakage, forgotten locations, etc. If they find they can get the radiation down in 1-2 years, that's almost certainly a big big win, but it's not clear whether storing it for 100 years in liquid helium is that much more reliable than storing it in a salt
        • but it's not clear whether storing it for 100 years in liquid helium is that much more reliable than storing it in a salt mine for 1600 years.

          True, but if you cut the storage time by something in the middle, say 20 to 60 years (within the scope of the claims) then you are not looking at storage facilities, but management facilities, whereby you are moving out older, safe material to bring in fresh waste. This means a permanant structure and constant monitoring, something that salt mines don't necessarily h
      • Re:Um (Score:5, Informative)

        by zerus (108592) on Tuesday August 01, 2006 @08:07PM (#15828622) Homepage
        It is pretty easy to shield using water, since that's how spent fuel is stored after discharge from commercial plants until it's cool enough to move to dry storage (temperature cool, not radiation). Dry storage works just fine once the thermal loadings are low enough. Casks such as this are present at nearly every nuclear facility that hasn't moved fuel offsite.

        My question about doing this on a large scale, is how are you going to keep this much material cool enough to reduce the half life assuming that this works in the first place? Alpha emission of transuranics has around 6.5 MeV of energy per particle, which translates into a large amount of heat for not so large amounts of material. The coolant material to waste ratio would be enormous! Also, the refrigerant energy to do this would probably render the entire process even more inefficient than the current idea of reprocessing (remember that reprocessing has lots of particularly nasty chemicals associated in large quantities). Since alpha emitting isotopes are neutron rich, meaning they are either fissile or fissionable, they can be used as fuel. Why destroy fuel when you can burn it? At worst, continue MOX reprocessing as is currently done. At best, fuel some RTG's for space exploration. In my mind, this type of research is "neat" at best, but if the purpose is trying to force schrodinger's cat back into the bag, they can forget it now that global warming is becoming a hot issue with nuclear power the sole possibility for continuing the current growth rate of electricity demand (way too many puns there, I apologize).
        • Re:Um (Score:4, Insightful)

          by MindStalker (22827) <`moc.liamg' `ta' `reklatsdnim'> on Tuesday August 01, 2006 @09:01PM (#15828836) Journal
          Couldn't you simply put it back into productions. I mean if its emitting all this excess radiation could you..... produce power with it????
          • Re:Um (Score:3, Insightful)

            by infolib (618234)

            I'm not completely sure what you mean, but if you want to extract the radiation energy from the cooled atoms it's impossible. Alpha particles will give off all their kinetic energy within micrometers and there's no way to stop it from heating the alloy. (Which you want to keep cold or the effect will stop).

            If it had been neutrons it might have worked - they can often penetrate several meters through the right substances, and it should be possible to set up neutron-stopping elements inside some system wher

          • Re:Um (Score:3, Insightful)

            by Vreejack (68778)
            No. The point here is to reduce the temperature to near zero K. That would give you a thermal efficiency of near zero, meaning no useful work can be done by it. So no power production, sorry.

          • The biggest political problem is the possibility of weaponization. From http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Breeder_reactor [wikipedia.org]

            "Use of a breeder reactor assumes nuclear reprocessing of the breeder blanket at least, without which the concept is meaningless. In practice, all proposed breeder reactor programs involve reprocessing of the fuel elements as well. This is important due to nuclear weapons proliferation concerns, as any nation conducting reprocessing using the traditional aqueous-based PUREX family of reprocess
      • by trawg (308495)
        What actually happens to water that is soaking up radiation from waste?
        • Re:Um (Score:3, Informative)

          by LWATCDR (28044)
          As one person said it gets warmer. It also depends on the emissions.
          Gamma would do next to nothing.
          Alpha not to much.
          beta I am not sure about.
          neutron is the problem but then you would tend to get deuterium and maybe some tritium.
          deuterium is harmless as acts as a moderator and tritium is very useful and has a very short half-life of around 11 years.
        • Re:Um (Score:3, Informative)

          by marcosdumay (620877)

          It depends on the kind of radiation, if it receive gamma radiation, it will become hot or even ionize. It may gather electrical charge (and beccome hot) from betta radiation. Alpha radiation may convert tiny amounts of it into lithium 5 or magnesium 20 that would almost instantameous (I'm not sure the latter one would even happen) decay by betta or neutron emissions, but since the material would probably encapsulated, the alpha radiation would never reach the water. Or it can change into hidrogen 2 (quite s

    • Re:Um (Score:3, Insightful)

      by jcr (53032)

      Is this wise?

      Yes, if it works.

      Decreasing the half-life means increasing the radioactivity.

      Yeah, so you shield it, just like you'd shield a reactor. Next question?

      -jcr
      • Yeah, so you shield it, just like you'd shield a reactor. Next question?

        What an interesting idea. Use this process to create managable energy.

        I am intreged.
      • Re:Um (Score:2, Insightful)

        by Jeff DeMaagd (2015)
        Yeah, so you shield it, just like you'd shield a reactor. Next question?

        There is no panacea and I doubt this is one. Any material to shield radioactivity will also become radioactive. Heck, even fusion isn't completely clean, I think one of the project goals of ITER is to find ways to manage the radioactivity of the components for when it is dismantled.
        • 'Any material to shield radioactivity will also become radioactive.'

          What a bullshit statement. It completely depends on many things, such as the products of radioactive decay for the element/isotope combo you are talking about, and to simplify it into that all encompasing statement is meaningless.
        • Re:Um (Score:4, Informative)

          by FooAtWFU (699187) on Tuesday August 01, 2006 @08:52PM (#15828792) Homepage
          Not so. Exposure to radiation does not inherently make something radioactive. Radiation is just alpha particles (helium nuclei - as others have said, they can be stopped "by a sheet of tissue paper"), beta particles (just high-energy electrons) and gamma rays (a high-energy form of light). So, something is struck by radiation. So what? If Something is some cells, they might develop cancer. The worst that can really happen is something absorbs a beta particle or such and transmutes to another element. This is seldom a significant source of radiation.

          The real risk is some of the (radioactive) material getting stuck on the containers. I'm sure that's far more manageable than all of the original waste.

          • Re:Um (Score:3, Informative)

            by DerekLyons (302214)

            Not so. Exposure to radiation does not inherently make something radioactive. Radiation is just alpha particles (helium nuclei - as others have said, they can be stopped "by a sheet of tissue paper"), beta particles (just high-energy electrons) and gamma rays (a high-energy form of light).

            You forgot neutrons.

            So, something is struck by radiation. So what?

            Neutron activation [wikipedia.org].

    • Re:Um (Score:4, Insightful)

      by gardyloo (512791) on Tuesday August 01, 2006 @07:52PM (#15828553)
      Is this wise? Decreasing the half-life means increasing the radioactivity. Given the option of living near a nuclear waste site and living near the lab where this is performed, I'd choose the former....

          You're right. But (as other posters have said) it is [probably] a good tradeoff. In my laboratory, we use ozone to purify water (read: kill bad things therein). It's nasty stuff, but it's so reactive (therefore lethal to buggies) that it disappears really fast. We used to use chlorine, which wasn't nearly so nasty, but which stuck around for much, much longer than the ozone. If you can deal with the reactivity during the worst of the reaction (at the very beginning), then you're pretty much home-free. Constant exposure to low-level chemicals (or radioactivity) which you might not know about is most likely much worse than very quick exposure to high levels of the same stuff which you DO know about.
    • by Kelson (129150) *
      If the technique works, its feasibility will depend on the strength of the shielding.

      If we can reliably shield the radiation released by the high-speed decay, then we can dispose of waste in a maintainable facility over a few decades -- we can monitor the facility, make repairs, transfer waste from a damaged container to a new one, etc. -- instead of trying to build something and hope it doesn't leak over the next 1600 years.

      So while the danger posed by a containment failure is greater (since more radiation
    • Re:Um (Score:5, Funny)

      by QuantumFTL (197300) * <justin...wick@@@gmail...com> on Tuesday August 01, 2006 @08:02PM (#15828597)
      In order to get the radiation down to safe levels, you have to out-radiate everything up to that level. Same radiation, doesn't matter if it takes the normal amount of time or less.

      Actually it matters quite a bit. There are plenty [wikipedia.org] of places [wikipedia.org] where all that radiation would be hardly noticed, and if the timescale is lessened to something managable by today's governments, we will be able to avoid the monumental task of warning future generations [doe.gov].

      I'd say that's quite a big win, if this pans out.
    • Re:Um (Score:5, Insightful)

      by RoffleTheWaffle (916980) on Tuesday August 01, 2006 @08:45PM (#15828768) Journal
      That's actually the idea - to make radioactive substances even more radioactive under controlled conditions so as to decay them into safer forms over a much shorter period of time, decreasing the amount of dangerously radioactive waste that has to be disposed of. Sure, it becomes more radioactive, but only under specific conditions and within a small timespan.

      I just think it's a shame the Integral Fast Reactor project got canned back in Clinton's day. If it hadn't been shut down, maybe nuclear waste wouldn't be nearly as huge a problem now...
  • by Rosco P. Coltrane (209368) on Tuesday August 01, 2006 @07:42PM (#15828510)
    I'm so glad I'll be able to life in Prypiat in only 3280 years...
  • Kerning (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Doc Ruby (173196) on Tuesday August 01, 2006 @07:43PM (#15828511) Homepage Journal
    How do these Germans know so much about the atomic nucleus? Did Neils Bohr leave them a working model or something? The German contribution to nuclear physics seems really disproprtionate to their actual population. Is there something unusually German about the model they committed us all to when they kicked off the science in the 1800s?
    • How do these Germans know so much about the atomic nucleus? Did Neils Bohr leave them a working model or something?

      No, their government allows them working models.

      We aren't allowed nuclear reactors here so we are falling massively behind. But at least it's safe... for the children.

      Except for the bears that is.
      • "Here"? Where, the US? You're not asserting that the US has no working nuclear reactors, are you?

        Or are you posting from Iran?
    • Re:Kerning (Score:5, Insightful)

      by rrohbeck (944847) on Tuesday August 01, 2006 @08:01PM (#15828595)
      How do these Germans know so much about the atomic nucleus? Did Neils Bohr leave them a working model or something?

      Easy: General education level, good science classes in high school, social image/reputation of science and scientists, and an absence of religious bias against science.

      Niels Bohr was Danish, FWIW.
    • Well Einstien was German and it was found that his brain was different from a "normal" persons. His parietal operculum region was missing and, to compensate, his inferior parietal lobe was 15% wider than normal. Maybe germans have more of these people than other populations?
    • Re:Kerning (Score:4, Informative)

      by flooey (695860) on Tuesday August 01, 2006 @08:03PM (#15828604)
      How do these Germans know so much about the atomic nucleus? Did Neils Bohr leave them a working model or something? The German contribution to nuclear physics seems really disproprtionate to their actual population. Is there something unusually German about the model they committed us all to when they kicked off the science in the 1800s?

      They spend a lot of money on nuclear physics. It's the same reason why the United States has such great computing research compared to its population.
    • Re:Kerning (Score:2, Informative)

      by itschy (992394)
      No, its not that we (I happen to be german) have special brains that work better when it comes to nuclear stuff (or war or beer for that matter).
      On the other side: Beer might help... :)
      I'm not sure about the working models that feepness mentioned either. Nuclear radiation is only allowed to gain energy and for medical reasons, no warfare whatsoever, so I guess there are lots of countries with more possibilities to explore nuclear energy.
      And a couple of years ago our government even decided to shut down all
  • by ackthpt (218170) * on Tuesday August 01, 2006 @07:46PM (#15828518) Homepage Journal

    "How do you power your cooling process?"

    "With that nulcear power plant in the next town over."

  • How long? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by misleb (129952) on Tuesday August 01, 2006 @07:46PM (#15828519)
    Ok, so all you have to do is cool it to near absolute zero. How long do you have to do that for and how much energy does it take to maintain it?

    -matthew
  • Doubling halve life (Score:3, Informative)

    by Tribbin (565963) on Tuesday August 01, 2006 @07:46PM (#15828521) Homepage
    When you double the halve life the radiation is halve.

    And also, first we need to build a fusion reactor to have energy to cool that shit.
  • Energy-balance? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by rainer_d (115765) on Tuesday August 01, 2006 @07:50PM (#15828537) Homepage
    I haven't read the article, but doesn't cooling things to a few K consume a sizeable amount of energy?

  • I had a system (Score:2, Interesting)

    by geekoid (135745)
    that only got 30fps when playing half-life.
    Does that count?
  • One problem (Score:2, Interesting)

    by bjdevil66 (583941)
    How much power is going to be needed to cool the material to 4K? I imagine you'd be creating quite a bit of waste (some of which would be nuclear) by doing this, thus negating some of its usefulness.
  • by Animats (122034) on Tuesday August 01, 2006 @07:56PM (#15828572) Homepage
    Even if this works, it will be tough to use. You'll have to cool something that emits heat down to near absolute zero. The energy required for that refrigeration job will be greater than the heat energy the radioactive material will emit over its remaining decay life.
    • Not a problem anymore. Just store the spent fuel near the Jewish Anti-Defamation League and give Mel Gibson a few drinks and have a news reporter standing by. The chill from the ADL will zap that spent fuel down to absolute zero in no time.
  • It all makes sense now, this is why we are only getting episodes!
  • by Dolly_Llama (267016) * on Tuesday August 01, 2006 @08:01PM (#15828592) Homepage
    I wonder what this process would do to the thermodynamic equation for the entire lifecycle of nuclear energy. I am not teh Smrt, so bear with me

    Nuclear energy is roughly as follows: Ore is mined -> ore is refined -> Energy is extracted from fuel -> Spent fuel is prepared and kept in a single degree kelvin fridge for several years. -> Safe spent fuel is disposed

    How many Joules does it take to keep the spent fuel at that low temperature for so long as compared to the energy extracted? Is there an orders-of-magnitude difference?
  • Wow this could have made Half-Life 2 come out YEARS sooner. At least there's still time to apply it to Duke Nukem Forever...
  • What a waste (Score:5, Interesting)

    by macemoneta (154740) on Tuesday August 01, 2006 @08:20PM (#15828670) Homepage
    Throwing all that energy away.

    We can achieve the same goal by allowing the reprocessing of nuclear "waste". PBS had a good interview [pbs.org] on the subject, which mentions that power generating reactors are only permitted [pbs.org] to extract less than 1 percent of the energy. This is what leaves the "waste" highly radioactive.

    I keep putting the word waste in quotes, because it's more like a nuclear fuel reserve than an unusable energy source. Use all the energy, and the half-life of what's left is a few decades.

  • by Chris.Nelson (943214) on Tuesday August 01, 2006 @08:20PM (#15828673)
    I just read an article in from a few months ago in Scientific American about fast reactors that can use the "spent" fuel from thermal reactors. Their waste is 95% smaller than thermal reactors and dangerous for only 10s of years, not 10s of thousands of years. _That_ technology has proven in prototype reactors.
  • One of my favorite technologies from the Traveller/Striker universe... nuclear dampers.

    It was supposed to increase or decrease decay of nuclear materials -- at a distance.

    A fun use of such a device is to neutralise an enemies nuclear arsenal and then starting a war with them. They then fire their nukes which does... nothing much at all.

    If only we could have these in the real world.

    Or at least a bio-engineered organism that eats black powder...

  • by silvermorph (943906) on Tuesday August 01, 2006 @08:23PM (#15828689)
    Prove this process and in less than a year the anti-evolutionists will be using it to discredit carbon dating.
  • by Doc Ruby (173196) on Tuesday August 01, 2006 @09:50PM (#15829004) Homepage Journal
    This development is encouraging, though of course not immediately useful. Because storing radioactive masses in even more metallic mass down near 0K for a century or more sounds like it consumes a vast amount of energy. Maybe more energy than the fuel produces while it's useful in reactors. Add the cost of building, securing and maintaining the nuke plant and its "detox" coolers, and nuke power still looks like a loser.

    But there's scientific hope for better engineering that could change that. The extra energy more quickly removed from the spent fuel in this process could possibly be harnessed. That would mean that nuclear fuel not only is made safe in manageable durations, like less than a century, but more of its potential energy is available right away, or during the lifetime of its "soft landing". The combination of greater efficiency and closed-ended management does transform at least that part of nuclear's currently unacceptable cost basis.

    As long as we're redesigning these reactions, we should do it all in space. There's plenty of microtemperatures out there; microgravity can make operations more energy efficient; security is less fuzzy; accidents have less exposure to vulnerable facilities, ecosystems and organisisms. It's still risky and expensive transporting fuel out of Earth's gravity well, but that's a lot more addressable by failsafe engineering than terrestrial proliferation.
  • by Chris Snook (872473) on Tuesday August 01, 2006 @10:16PM (#15829090)
    Note that beta electron emitters actually get a longer half-life out of this process, not a shorter one. It only shortens the half-life of alpha emitters and beta positron emitters. On the plus side, the main hazardous electron beta emitter that we care about is Tritium, which already has a very short half-life.

    In fact, the effect on beta electron emitters could turn out to be even more useful. Using this effect to dispose of alpha emitters is a problem because the decay process emits heat, but you could use the same phenomenon to preserve your 12-year-half-life tritium, since you're suppressing the process that would be heating it up.
  • not plausible (Score:5, Informative)

    by bcrowell (177657) on Tuesday August 01, 2006 @10:36PM (#15829149) Homepage
    This whole thing isn't very plausible. Here are the common types of nuclear decay:
    1. fission
    2. alpha emission
    3. electron emission
    4. positron emission
    5. electron capture
    (I don't include gamma emission, because, although it does occur frequently in the aftermath of one of the types of decay above, it generally has a very short half-life, so it typically doesn't affect the time it takes for an entire decay chain to go.) Processes 1-4 are all purely nuclear, and don't depend in any way on the surrounding electrons. Process 5 does depend on the surrounding electrons, and, e.g., can't occur in an atom that's been completely ionized down to the bare nucleus. However, when it does occur, the electron that gets captured, with extremely high probability, is one of the ones in the innermost electron shells (known as the K shell in nuclear physics). That's because the K-shell electrons are the ones whose wavefunctions overlap the nucleus the most strongly. If you embed the atom in metal, or cool the substance it's embedded in, it has very, very little effect on the K-shell electrons. The electrons in the surrounding substance aren't going to get into the act, either, basically because of the Pauli exclusion principle.
  • breeder reactors (Score:3, Informative)

    by m874t232 (973431) on Wednesday August 02, 2006 @01:17AM (#15829737)
    The solution to the radioactive waste problem already exists: breeder reactors. The reason they aren't being used is politics, not technology.

    Even if we could dispose of the current high-level radioactive waste using this technique, it would still be irresponsible. Non-breeder reactors use only a tiny fraction of the energy stored in the nuclear fuel and throw away the rest, and that's an unacceptable waste.

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