Invention could make spent nuclear fuel useful for irradiation purposes

Apr 04, 2013
A new system developed at Oregon State University would use hundreds of rods containing spent nuclear fuel to provide the gamma rays that, in this example, are irradiating medical supplies to sterilize them. Credit: Oregon State University

A researcher at Oregon State University has invented a way to use spent nuclear fuel to produce the gamma rays needed to irradiate medical supplies, food and other products – an advance that could change what is now a costly waste disposal concern into a valued commodity.

The technology, if widely implemented, might allow each of the 104 nuclear reactors in the United States to create a of $10 million a year while providing thousands of new jobs. And by lowering the cost of irradiation, it could become commercially feasible for a wider range of uses.

A provisional patent has been issued on the technology, and commercialization efforts are under way through a private company, G-Demption LLC, created for that purpose.

"This is essentially a way to re-use spent nuclear fuel for a valuable purpose," said Russell Goff, a masters student in the OSU Department of Nuclear Engineering and Radiation Health Physics. "Until now no one really thought to do this. But this approach is safe, practical and economical. Instead of treating all nuclear waste as a disposal problem, we could be putting much of it to good use."

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Irradiation is a growing industry, and is commonly used in the of medical supplies such as bandages or syringes. It's also widely approved for helping to preserve foods – many spices, and some fruits and meat products are irradiated. The use of for these purposes does not make the underlying product radioactive, and generally has no effects on it that are any more pronounced than other sterilization or preservation technologies.

However, the gamma ray sterilization industry is constrained by the need for cobalt 60, the most commonly used.

"The U.S. already uses about half of the world's supply of cobalt 60 for various types of irradiation, and the process can be expensive," Goff said. "The new system we've created should be significantly less expensive, and as such could open the technology to more routine uses. We could double the world supply of with this new technology and still won't come close to meeting the market demand for this valuable resource."

Sterile medical supplies are a huge market for gamma irradiation, Goff said, and increased used of irradiation could reduce the need for sterilization with ethylene oxide gas, which is a highly toxic and flammable gas.

The system Goff has invented adds another level of protection to prevent unwanted fission products from escaping the spent nuclear fuel and entering the environment, but allows gamma radiation to be released in a controlled manner for irradiation purposes. Because recently spent nuclear fuel – less than 12 years old - still has fairly intense levels of radiation, it provides an economical way to irradiate products.

The nuclear waste handling systems needed to use the new technology are similar to those already being used at nuclear power plants, he said, and the process of sterilizing the products is almost identical to processes used in the cobalt 60 irradiation industry today.

Aside from providing a commercial use for spent , the approach would also reduce the significant expense of otherwise storing it, Goff noted. This system might also have special appeal in developing countries, where refrigeration and other approaches to preserving food, as well as access to sterile medical supplies, are not always readily available.

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User comments : 12

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xel3241
2.3 / 5 (3) Apr 04, 2013
This probably sounds absurd, but why doesn't NASA use some of the nuclear waste to power radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTGs) on spacecraft traveling beyond Mars? We would produce fuel for such spacecraft far more cheaply and could deposit it safely in the cores of the giant planets, rather than somewhere on Earth.
Whydening Gyre
3 / 5 (4) Apr 04, 2013
Like the thinking, xel. Hooray for the Universes method of cleaning up after itself. It appears we're learning from it...
Telekinetic
1 / 5 (7) Apr 04, 2013
How about we stay clear of this EXTREMELY deadly material altogether? Irradiating food and then eating it? Maybe everyone should sit down with a bag of irradiated bt popcorn and watch the movie "Silkwood" first. Do a little investigation into the safety of irradiation before you endorse it.
Telekinetic
1 / 5 (4) Apr 04, 2013
@ OZGuy | k_m | lite |,

You three stooges should read the history about the women who hand painted watch faces with radium, only to develop huge cancerous goiters later on. This spent material is even more dangerous.
Parsec
5 / 5 (1) Apr 04, 2013
This probably sounds absurd, but why doesn't NASA use some of the nuclear waste to power radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTGs) on spacecraft traveling beyond Mars? We would produce fuel for such spacecraft far more cheaply and could deposit it safely in the cores of the giant planets, rather than somewhere on Earth.

Most isotopes are not useable in atomic batteries for a variety of reasons. They have the wrong kind of decay, their half lives are too short, or too long, etc.
sa_kiteman
5 / 5 (1) Apr 05, 2013
There is nothing new here. Sr-90 makes a good radio-isotope for RTGs, though not as good as Pu-238. The Russians have been using Sr-90 for quite some time. I prefer SRGs (Stirling Radio-thermal Generators) due to their significantly higher efficiency.

Cs-137 makes a good Gamma emitter for sterilization.

Both can be extracted easily by vacuum distillation of fluorinated SNF. They both have extremely high boiling points as fluorides so will remain together in the still bottoms. They can then be easily separated since one is water soluble and the other not.
sa_kiteman
4.7 / 5 (3) Apr 05, 2013
telekinetic wrote:
You three stooges should read the history about the women who hand painted watch faces with radium, only to develop huge cancerous goiters later on. This spent material is even more dangerous.
Said women also were prone to lick the tip of the brush to give it a nice point for all that delicate work. Not a good idea.

There is such a thing as overdoing it. Your attitude is overdoing the fear thing. Botulism toxin is extremely dangerous too, but it is used safely every day for medical procedures.

SNF is a resource. We should USE it, not bury it. I am happy that this group has gotten some folks to think about it some more.
Telekinetic
1.4 / 5 (5) Apr 05, 2013
@ sa kiteman:
"When food is exposed to high doses of ionising radiation, the chemical composition and nutritional content of food can change. Radiolytic by-products are often formed in irradiated food. Very few of these chemicals have been adequately studied for toxicity. One such chemical - 2-DCB - can cause DNA damage in rat colon cells at high doses." -Medical News Today

People welcoming known and unknown toxic processes with open arms and shuddering at the thought of eating organically grown broccoli is a cancer tumor's dream come true.

kamakura117
not rated yet Apr 05, 2013
This is not new and in fact the EPA references such a process for food irradiation.

There are also various patents looking at separate aspects of such.
hudres
not rated yet Apr 07, 2013
At least one company is now producing electrically driven X-ray generators as a Cobalt-60 substitute which have a similar energy and fluence to Cobalt-60. (1Mev with 200,000 amp beam currents; kiloRad to megaRad fluence) Why bother with dealing with hazardous isotopes with potential terrorist uses when a simple electrically powered system will do the same job?
Sean_W
1 / 5 (1) Apr 07, 2013
How about we stay clear of this EXTREMELY deadly material altogether? Irradiating food and then eating it? Maybe everyone should sit down with a bag of irradiated bt popcorn and watch the movie "Silkwood" first. Do a little investigation into the safety of irradiation before you endorse it.


You didn't read the article did you? It's gamma rays. Like light. It doesn't hang around on the food waiting to jump out on you when you turn your back.

Even the radioactive substances themselves are not as dangerous as you claim. More people get sick panicking about radiation than from exposure to it. Compare deaths from having too much iron in your system to radiation sickness and realize that iron has a much better claim to being "very dangerous" yet they sell it in pharmacies for people to gobble.
ValeriaT
1 / 5 (1) Apr 07, 2013
why doesn't NASA use some of the nuclear waste to power radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTGs) on spacecraft traveling beyond Mars
Too low power/energy density and fast decay rate. Also, the generation of gamma rays and neutrons is particularly unwanted in these applications, as they cannot be shielded easily and they destroy the electronic equipment.

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