A schematic of the MYRRHA (Multi-purpose hYbrid Research Reactor for High-tech Applications) concept allows for industrial scale treatment of nuclear waste.

A schematic of the MYRRHA (Multi-purpose hYbrid Research Reactor for High-tech Applications) concept allows for industrial scale treatment of nuclear waste.

In the wake of the Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster, and as always Chernobyl, as anti-nuclear manifestos are quick to remind every time nuclear powered energy is concerned, there seems to be a sort of stigma applied to nuclear power. Countries are revising their policies –  some for the better, being long overdue, while other simply limit nuclear power rather precariously. Besides the actual chain reaction, meltdown or other nuclear hazard event which might possibly occur, there’s an other big issue with nuclear power and that’s  its byproduct – nuclear waste. A novel technique involving a particle accelerator which can create fast neutrons, in the process lowering the half-life of waste from hundreds of thousands of years to mere hundreds, might re-balance the odds back to nuclear, however. Nuclear energy might be in for a come back.

The idea that you can you stick dangerous radioactive material, that stays radioactive for even millions of years, in a lead can and hope that it will never leak in the environment is preposterous. Still, this is the only or primary way nuclear waste from facilities around the world is handled, and of course this has attracted a wave of unpopularity.

Scientists at the Belgium nuclear research center SCK CEN in Mol have developed a technology which uses a particle accelerator as a neutron source, in an attempt to make nuclear waste much less unfriendly to the environment. The idea, in small simple lines, goes like this:  you alter the geometry of the reactor chamber such that neutrons produced by the nuclear reaction don’t multiply in other subsequent reaction by having them escape the reactor vessel. In the meantime, to  sustain the nuclear fission process you pump neutrons from a spallation source, which is a material that can produce lots of fast-moving neutrons when you hit it with high energy proton. If cut out the accelerator,t he fission reaction cannot sustain itself , so there isn’t any peril of a meltdown or chain reaction disaster.

Radioactive toxicity

Also, the waste nuclear fuel is transmuted into fission products with much shorter half-lives by a few orders of magnitude, which makes burring waste for a few hundred years actually feasible and safe.  A prototype of the system should be up and running by the early 2020s. Hopefully, this might put nuclear energy back on track as the leading clean, safe and efficient form of energy.

For more details on this very important subject, I’d like to invite you to read the Mol scientists’ paper from CERN.


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  1. 1

    Some nuclear waste will absorb neutrons and some, notably Cesium does not. You might want to check on this. Cs 135 has a half life of 2.3 million years and is now, since Chernobyl, everywhere
    . As a general rule you must multiply the half life by 10 for the radionuclide to be considred ‘gone’ from the environment.

  2. 2

    Here from Wikipedia: 137Cs with a half-life of 30.17 years is one of the two principal medium-lived fission products, along with 90Sr, which are responsible for most of the radioactivity of spent nuclear fuelafter several years of cooling, up to several hundred years after use. It constitutes most of the radioactivity still left from the Chernobyl accident. 137Cs beta decays to barium-137m (a short-lived nuclear isomer) then to nonradioactive barium-137, and is also a strong emitter of gamma radiation. 137Cs has a very low rate of neutron capture and cannot be feasibly disposed of in this way, but must be allowed to decay. 137Cs has been used as a tracer in hydrologic studies, analogous to the use of 3H.

  3. 3

    OK, I’ve had a chance to read about MYRRHA. Wow, your article is highly misleading. This is a reactor that plans to be available for research into transmutation of elements by 2020. It is for researching methods of transmutation and other things. No one knows what is possible and the state of the art is that it is not possible now or in the foreseeable future. So who is paying you to write this?

  4. 4

    Jack, this article discusses a concept. The working principle of MYRRHA has not yet been proven since, like you specified, the current technology doesn’t allow for it yet. I’ve read that a working prototype might be completed by the early 2020s, which I already specified in the article. I am not a physicist, and from the little knowledge i possess in the field, I simply outlined its prospects after reading about it in various other sources. I didn’t write anywhere, though, that such a device CAN do this; only what it might be capable of. Everything in theory, of course. Frankly, it might never become a reality – it wouldnt’ be the first such project to be shelved. I’m not sure what’s the misleading part though, could you please reference exactly what sentences or paragraphs you found misleading, so I can modify them? Please understand that we do write about a myriad of science fields, and as such it is impossible to portray information accurately 100% of the time. Sometimes even official press releases from universities have it wrong – we’ve seen it.

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