Nuclear power is great, but the waste it creates is a problem. Best case scenario we can turn it into more power in the future, but for now we’re stuck just stashing it away. But there’s another way — a badass way — that’s poised to make it easier and safer: nuclear glass.
The process is surprisingly simple. You just take whatever plutonium-contaminated waste you have, mix it with some blast furnace slag, and through a process called vitrification, turn the mixture into glass that locks the dangerous waste inside. The idea itself isn’t brand spanking new, but engineers at the University of Sheffield have shown that it’s possible to use their blast-furnace-slag process to shrink piles of nuclear waste down by 90 per cent.
This process isn’t used on actual spent rods or anything, but instead on things like used filters, personal protective equipment, and leftover metal and stone from decommissioned plants. Right now, all that stuff just gets encased in concrete and buried. But if it’s all melted down into compact little cubes of glass, the burial process suddenly gets way easier. And safer, for everyone involved.
So far the engineers at Sheffield haven’t tested their process on actual plutonium contaminated waste. Instead, they have been using cerium, a safer but similar analogue, to perfect the glass-making magic before getting real plutonium involved. But if this method holds up, we could be on the cusp of a much much easier way to deal with some of our radioactive waste. And also maybe the world’s most dangerously badass glassware. [University of Sheffield]