For thousands of years, humanity has had the crazy idea that things could be turned into other things. The most famous example of this pursuit is the transmutation of lead into gold. But nowadays it is not much more than a metaphor than the creation of something valuable from something considered basal, put in the effort and you will be rewarded kind of thing.
Boy wouldn’t those alchemists be pissed to find out that we took their idea of lead to gold and while we might not have done that, we have turned things as common as lead into objects worth more than the purest gold.
We’ve talked about what makes up nuclear waste, how it’s actually a very small fraction of spent fuel, but what we haven’t really discussed is that a surprisingly large chunk of that “waste” is actually very valuable material. Or at least it becomes very valuable material. Dangerous chemically toxic materials like Caesium, Cadmium, and Antimony turn into useful materials like Barium, Indium and Tellurium. There are also elements in the fission products that are already stable or so barely radioactive that they are effectively stable. (ie. half-lives longer than 1 Trillion years, yeah that’s a thing.) a few examples are Gadolinium, Europium, Samarium, Selenium which, except for Selenium, are considered to be Rare Earth Elements, which are becoming more and more useful as component materials in all manner of very high tech, high-efficiency products.
There is also Xenon, which is something that nuclear power plants would love to get rid of as fast as possible, and that groups like NASA or the ESA would love to get more of as it is a great propellant for deep space exploration missions.
Sure none of these elements sound like they are actually expensive like gold, but that’s where the next two come in, Palladium and Ruthenium, sitting pretty at $1517 USD/ozt and $288 USD/ozt respectively. There are also small amounts of Silver, Zirconium, Niobium and Neodymium.
But the Real “gold” mine of nuclear waste is radioisotopes like Technetium that are used for radiation therapies. Not only are they extremely valuable financially, but they are used in nuclear medicine as contrast agents to help find tumours, and as radiotherapy sources to kill those same tumours.
In fact, there is a specific decay chain called the Neptunium decay chain that has been extinct in our solar system for well over a billion years, but we can remake it by using thorium burning reactors like were testing at Oak Ridge National Labs back in the 60s. Now in this decay chain is a pathway that bounces from actinium through bismuth and polonium. If you remember way back I said that alpha radiation was great at killing cells if you got it inside you… Well some smart doctors realized that if you could get a fast decaying chain of alpha emitters to stick to cancer cells that they would be a viciously effective treatment against high mortality tumours such as specific forms of breast cancer, or leukemia. Periodic Videos has a great expose on this process being tested and used for patient treatments.
This series has wanted to shine a light on every aspect of misinformation about nuclear waste that it could. We’ve discussed what it is defined as, what it is comprised of, why people are afraid of it, and what we should be doing with it. Finally, here we remind ourselves that it is only “waste” if we allow it to go to waste. There are extremely useful things in all those dry casks and storage facilities. And it’s ironic that a lot of the same people that champion the removal of single-use plastics; separating our organics, papers and plastics in our residential waste; and reducing our material impact on our environment should miss the boat so thoroughly. Either by not realizing that nuclear materials can be recycled and repurposed or by deliberately ignoring that it can be done. We have to be responsible for this “waste”, for the betterment of society, just as everything else can and should be.