Radioactive Reuse

Whenever you hear about “radwaste” it is in the context of something dangerous that will remain a hazard for a million years. There are huge amounts of it that have built up that are even more dangerous because there is so much of it.

Most of the radioactive material being discussed is the byproduct of the fission of uranium-235 in nuclear power plants.

From a Zero Waste point of view, anytime you hear about a huge amount of practically anything, your ears should perk up. A small amount might not be worth working with to find a use for it, but when you have a huge amount, any application will be rewarded by having a substantial source.

Radioactive byproducts are no exception. It is estimated that by 1995, over 40 tons of radioactive Technetium-99 were to be found in the fission byproducts of U-235, and Tc-99 is a valuable and widely used medical tracer. There are no stable isotopes of Tc, so any Tc in the universe decays to something else, leaving virtually none in the planet’s crust. 40 tons of this ephemeral metal is a bonanza. The current medical applications can’t make use of that much metal but research should be launched to find new applications for this otherwise unobtainable raw material.

Similarly, there are hundreds of tons of rare earths among the byproducts of nuclear power plants. Some of these rare earths are actually rare while some are not, but most of them have specialized uses and are irreplaceable in optics, magnets and electronics. Admittedly, some of the rare earths are in the form of radioactive isotopes but after just a hundred years, much of the radioactivity will be dissipated. The trick is to separate out the valuable rare earth metals for watching, waiting and using. The world is facing a crisis of insufficient rare earths to use for all the electrooptical products it builds and could even see saber rattling between the US and China over rare earths. Meanwhile we struggle valiantly to find a way to discard the rare earths we already have.

Americium is widely used as a detector/ionizer in smoke alarms. Now 177-Lutetium and 225-Actinium are attached to antibodies that can find cancer cells and then kill them by beta or alpha radiation (C&E News 4/18/22 p. 29)

Some readers may be so beset by distaste for nuclear power that no discussion of uses for what they insist on treating as a waste can be tolerated. To them, I say don’t be foolish. This material has already been created. Its components are entirely unique. It will do no one any good to view it with such hatred that it has to be denigrated and wasted. After all, these are atoms, not molecules. Atoms are not going to be destroyed in any way except by radioactive decay. Produce no more of the byproduct if you wish to stop, but there is a huge backlog already so let us view it with the highest intelligence we can muster.

None of this discussion is intended to turn nuclear power around and make it acceptable. A Zero Waste approach says to design your power plants to produce nothing requiring discard but only reusable byproducts. If you can’t figure that out, don’t build it and don’t allow it to be sold. But meanwhile, in this wasteful world we still live in, don’t apply the term waste to anything because that designation always implies that the speaker cannot find any use for the byproduct and has no intention of even looking for a use. Calling radioactive outputs from nuclear power plants “waste” is what has fueled the abortive search for a depository to put it in. If one tenth of one percent of the amount of money devoted to discard of such products were spent on finding uses for the isotopes, we would probably be far along in being able to use much of such “waste” productively.

Stanford University produced this tentative start at doing the research for reuse:

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