Fri, Apr 22, 2005 - Page 5 News List

Earth Day: Synthetic rock could prove solution to nuclear waste

THE OBSERVER , CANBERRA

An Australian process for disposing of nuclear waste has emerged as a front runner for cleaning up atomic power plants and obsolete warheads.

The Synroc, or synthetic rock process, was invented by the late Australian nuclear physicist Ted Ringwood in 1978.

This month, after years of low budget and low key refinement, it won a multimillion dollar "demonstration" contract to eliminate 5 tonnes of plutonium contaminated waste at British Nuclear Fuel's Sellafield plant, on the northwest coast of England.

Synroc binds or immobilizes nuclear wastes in a synthetic rock containing microscopic matrices specifically tailored to lock up the particular forms of spent uranium or plutonium that needs to be disposed.

It is claimed Synroc will be geologically stable for hundreds of thousands if not millions of years and resistant to subterranean heat and water leaching.

In Ringwood's vision the enriched uranium or plutonium fuel rods that were used in power stations would be turned into synroc once their energy was spent and put back into the same mine shafts from which the uranium ore from which they were made was extracted.

"There is no more elegant way of safely exploiting atomic energy than extracting everything you can from the original source and then putting the waste back where it came from," Ringwood said at the time.

But Synroc ran afoul of both the nuclear industries of the US, UK and France, and the anti-nuclear movements. The atomic "establish disarmament" movements vehemently opposed all aspects of the industry, even the work towards safe storage of waste, on the basis that it could be reprocessed in the wrong hands into nuclear weapons.

And until the combined crises of soaring oil prices and unacceptable levels of greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel burning began to make themselves felt, these political and economic objections had brought the industry to a standstill.

Nuclear energy was too costly, compared to coal or oil, and the problem of dealing with radioactive by-products that could be lethal for more than 250,000 years had not been solved. Vitrification also proved a failure.

Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organization says the global spend on temporary storage of nuclear waste is now around US$4 billion a year, and it has been discretely lobbying behind the scenes in recent years to "educate" politicians on the potential export benefits of either licensing Synroc or using it for an Australia-based reprocessing industry.

Ringwood, who died 14 years ago, had estimated that Australia could earn around US$10 billion a year from converting other countries radioactive wastes into Synroc and burying them deep under the outback.

Synroc was chosen by the US Department of Energy in the 1990s as a preferred technology for treating waste plutonium, before the program's budget was cancelled in Congress.

The British deal for Synroc comes as government and opposition politicians in Australia are calling for careful reconsideration of the merits of nuclear energy as an alternative to the burning of fossil fuels. As a major producer of uranium, Australia is now debating becoming a user, and a remover, of the most potentially deadly element that exists in mineral form on the planet.

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