Sun, May 30, 2004 - Page 3 News List

Help in store on nuclear waste

LIKE MAGIC The nation has spent a long time puzzling over what to do with waste from its nuclear power plants, but an official says things might be about to get easier


The nation's troublesome nuclear-waste legacy may be over by the end of the year as the Atomic Energy Council expects to reach a scientific breakthrough in its methods of handling radioactive waste, council Chairman Ouyang Min-shen (歐陽敏盛) said yesterday.

"Plasma technology, adopted from the US, Russia and Japan by the Institute of Nuclear Energy Research, is an efficient, economical and safe way to handle nuclear waste," Ouyang told the Taipei Times yesterday during a two-day orientation program for new Cabinet officials in Ilan County's Wu-chieh towhship.

The nation is storing roughly 98,000 barrels of low-level nuclear waste on Orchid Island. The issue of relocating the waste has been a headache for the government. The Ministry of Economic Affairs has been mulling whether to move the waste abroad or relocate it elsewhere domestically, but has not yet reached a decision.

With the new technology, Ouyang said that the council hopes to complete the relocation project by 2008, when President Chen Shui-bian's (陳水扁) second four-year term expires.

The funding for the relocation project would come from the nation's NT$300 billion (US$9.1 billion) nuclear handling fund. Ouyang estimated that the project might cost about NT$30 billion.

One of the biggest challenges facing the nuclear industry today is how to store and dispose of nuclear waste, which remains radioactive for millions of years.

One approach to this problem involves bombarding the waste with neutrons to speed up the process through which long-lived isotopes decay into nuclei -- with much shorter half-lives.

"Physicists in the UK and Germany have now demonstrated a new laser-driven approach to transmutation," Ouyang said.

The laser approach ionizes gold to form a plasma and then accelerates electrons in the plasma. When the electrons strike the solid gold of the target they emit gamma rays. A sample of nuclear waste containing radioactive iodine is then placed behind the gold target. Transmutation occurs when a gamma ray ejects a neutron from an iodine-129 nucleus to leave behind short-lived iodine-128 nucleus.

"Using lasers is a relatively cheap and very efficient way of disposing of nuclear waste," Ouyang said.

"Now we need to improve our methods so that we can deal with the sort of volumes likely to be produced by the nuclear industry in the future," he said.

According to Ouyang, radioactive waste processed using the plasma technology is rarely used in large countries because they prefer the traditional method of storing the waste underground.

That method is highly difficult here because land acquisition is more expensive and difficult, Ouyang said.

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