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Saturday, 24 February 2007

Nuclear waste containers will not work, say scientists

 Nuclear waste containers will not work, say scientists

By Wendy Frew

CERAMIC containers developed to "immobilise" highly radioactive waste may not prove durable enough to prevent the toxic material leaching into the environment, research published in Nature has found.

Certain kinds of nuclear waste stay highly toxic for tens of thousands of years, and scientists have sought ways of stabilising or capturing the radioactive elements long enough to allow the waste to degrade naturally.

Researchers at Cambridge University directly measured the radiation damage from nuclear waste to the ceramic containers and found they degraded faster than had been expected. The research team, led by Dr Ian Farnan, found radioactive waste could turn zirconium silicate, which the nuclear industry had hoped could safely store radioactive waste, into a less reliable material after 1400 years instead of the desired 250,000 years.

Some governments, including Australia's, have touted nuclear energy as a partial solution to climate change, but environmentalists and some scientists have argued the radioactive waste generated by nuclear power plants creates a new set of environmental problems.

An Australian scientist said the significance of the British research was limited because it looked at only one kind of material. The senior principal research scientist at the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation, Greg Lumpkin, said the organisation had moved beyond zircon by developing a titanium-based material called Synroc.

"We left zircon behind years ago, but it has persisted as a model used by the industry," Dr Lumpkin said.

The Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation had yet to commercialise Synroc but was pursuing partnerships with overseas organisations to have the technology adopted, he said.


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