August 02, 2006

sci-fi sounding, but real, method of nuclear waste desposal

Tim Worstall is pointing to an interesting way of speeding up the decay of nuclear waste. Embed it in a metal and then cool it to a few degrees above absolute zero, and the decay rate of certain materials increases that decay by alpha particle or positron emmision. This is because the negitively charged free electrons in the metal are able to give an extra bit of pull on the escaping particles so that they require less energy to break free from the effects of the Strong Force that binds them into the atomic nuclius, since they require less energy it will take less time before the random energy flutuations caused by the Uncertainly Principal temporalily give the escaping particle enough energy to escape.
They are now investigating the α-decay of radium-226, a hazardous component of spent nuclear fuel with a half-life of 1600 years. Rolfs calculates that this half-life could be reduced to as little as a year and at the very least to 100 years
However there is a problem with trying to use this on an industrial scale, that is that it takes an aweful lot of energy to cool things down to close to absolute zero. Scaling up the cryogenic systems that we currently use would be very expensive for the quanitities of material required. One way to do it might be to place them in space with a parasol to shield it from the heat of the sun, this will get you to some very low tempartures effectively for 'free' just needing to cover the costs of getting it up there. Another use for the Space Elevator perhaps?


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