Nuclear Waste-Burning Technology Could Change the Face of Nuclear Energy

Sept. 12, 2012

AUSTIN, Texas — University of Texas at Austin physicists have been awarded a U.S. patent for an invention that could someday be used to turn nuclear waste into fuel, thus removing the most dangerous forms of waste from the fuel cycle.

Physicists Mike Kotschenreuther, Swadesh Mahajan and Prashant Valanju. Photo: Marsha Miller.

Physicists Mike Kotschenreuther, Swadesh Mahajan and Prashant Valanju. Photo: Marsha Miller.

The researchers — Mike Kotschenreuther, Prashant Valanju and Swadesh Mahajan of the College of Natural Sciences — have patented the concept for a novel fusion-fission hybrid nuclear reactor that would use nuclear fusion and fission together to incinerate nuclear waste. Fusion produces energy by fusing atomic nuclei, and fission produces energy by splitting atomic nuclei.

The process of burning the waste would also produce energy. The researchers’ goal is to eliminate 99 percent of the most toxic transuranic waste from nuclear fission reactors.

“The potential for this kind of technology is enormous,” said Mahajan, professor of physics. “Now that we have the patent, we hope this will open up opportunities to engage with the research and development community to further this potentially world-changing technology.”

The researchers’ patent covers a tokamak device, which uses magnetic fields to produce fusion reactions. The patented tokamak is surrounded by an area that would house a nuclear waste fuel source and waste by-products of the nuclear fuel cycle. The device is driven by a transformational technology called the Super X Divertor.

The Super X Divertor is a crucial technology that has the capacity to safely divert the enormous amounts of heat out of the reactor core to keep the reactor producing energy.

Toxic nuclear waste is stored at sites around the U.S., and the need to store nuclear waste is widely considered to be a major disadvantage associated with nuclear energy.

The physicists’ invention could someday drastically decrease the need for any additional or expanded geological repositories, making nuclear power cleaner and more viable.

The patented hybrid reactor is currently in a conceptual phase.

The Super X Divertor, however, is being installed as the centerpiece of a $40 million upgrade of the MAST tokamak in the United Kingdom. This installation is a critical step forward in testing the Super X Divertor experimentally. It is not covered by the U.S. patent but is the technology invented by the University of Texas at Austin physicists.

For more information on the fusion-fission hybrid reactor, read “Nuclear Fusion-Fission Hybrid Could Destroy Nuclear Waste And Contribute to Carbon-Free Energy Future.”

For more information, contact: Lee Clippard, College of Natural Sciences, 512-232-0675; Swadesh Mahajan, 512-471-4376, mahajan@mail.utexas.edu

5 Comments to "Nuclear Waste-Burning Technology Could Change the Face of Nuclear Energy"

1.  Richard (Dick) Hiner said on Sept. 12, 2012

"Burning" nuclear waste in some "new" reactor or even older reactors to get rid of it is an old dream. Most of the waste will just be turned into other highly radioactive elements that are almost or more dangerous than the elements the nuclear industry is using and but unable to dispose of now. I'd have to guess that this University of Texas invention must have to chemically break down used radioactive fuel bundles into liquids in order to make them usable in the "new" reactor. This will leave highly radioactive LIQUID waste similar to the military waste in Hanford Washington and we all know what a problem that has been. "Vitrification" of liquid radioactive waste in now proving to be another dream.

2.  SteveK9 said on Sept. 12, 2012

Can't we do this now with current fast reactor technology ... GE Prism for example?

3.  Bill Jones said on Sept. 13, 2012

Hi Bill:

This is a brief discription of the technology that Dale Klein is pushing. I am very sceptical.

Pete

4.  Hannah Wojciehowski said on Sept. 13, 2012

This is huge. It's inspiring to know that our colleagues in physics are solving one of the most significant energy problems in the world today. Well done!

5.  Bill said on Sept. 21, 2012

If this becomes useable, safely, it is a tremendous breakthrough! I am hoping it works because we need to be able to develop nuclear energy and safely dispose of the waste.