Turning Radioactive Waste to Glass

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Disposal of nuclear waste has always been a hot topic ever since humans began harnessing nuclear energy. Radioactive materials pose great health hazards to any living thing it comes in contact with. To top it off, these lethal wastes can live from thousands to millions of years, affecting things in the future we can’t even fathom.

Stricter guidelines continue to be imposed on nuclear plants to ensure everyone’s safety. From production to handling wastes, everything has to be precisely done for the sake of everyone’s life. However, accidents can still occur. This is why experts continue to look for ways to safely handle radioactive wastes.

Ashutosh Goel, a researcher at Rutgers University in New Jersey, seems to have found the answer to this dilemma. Using a process called vitrification, he was able to produce a glass version of the radioactive waste iodine-129. The produced glass is tough and stable enough to be safely stored underground without worrying about leaching.

Vitrification is basically the process of transforming any substance into a glass. Nuclear wastes are mixed with other compounds and melted together before solidifying them all into a glass. The product locks the atomic particles of the nuclear waste in place, resulting in an insoluble glass which significantly helps in preventing radioactive wastes from leaching.

Normally, waste materials are sealed in drums and buried underground inside chambers that are lined with lead or any compound that can block radioactive radiation. However, there have been numerous reports of compromised chambers where they only found empty canisters, absent of the radioactive wastes they’re supposed to contain. Occurrences of leaching have been suspected in affected areas, posing threats of soil and water contamination which can affect millions of living things.

These reports are the reason why the process of turning nuclear wastes into glass is of great importance. Iodine-129, the isotope that Goel successfully glassed has a half-life of 15.7 million years, meaning it can still linger long after everything we know of had ceased to exist. Also, radiation from iodine-129 strikes the thyroid gland and increase the chances of developing cancer.

The process of vitrifying nuclear wastes has been around for quite some time. In fact, several other innovations have been made on nuclear waste disposal using the same process. Although the science behind is not new, the involvement of iodine-129 makes the discovery stand out. This isotope is one of the most produced byproducts of nuclear fission and has one of the longest lasting half-life.

The glass product, despite being insoluble, still emits harmful radiation. It still has to be stored inside containers and underground to prevent the material from contaminating anything else. However, the glassed waste is now safer to dispose of because it eliminates the risk of leaching.