The idea of turning nuclear waste into nuclear fuel has been a long-sought dream for physicists and engineers for decades. Now a team at the Belgian Nuclear Research Centre in Mol has proposed using a particle accelerator to zap the waste and create fast neutrons which can become a fuel source. The Multi-Purpose Hybrid Research Reactor for Hi-Tech Applications (MYRRHA) proposal would use the particle accelerator as a sort of a combustion source for the reactor waste, however the idea is that the resulting reaction would not be self-sustaining.That means that it could be turned off at anytime.

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According to the blog Wavewatching, by capturing these neutrons, the waste can be turned into fission products with much shorter half-lives. The project is still in the testing phase. Here’s a recent paper on the proposal and an online presentation that contains the reactor diagram.

Given decisions by political leaders in Germany and Japan to begin abandoning their nukes, it’s likely there is lots of fuel out there waiting to be either disposed of or used somehow. The Belgians hope their proposal could reduce waste and continue producing energy in a safer way.

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“The idea is simple, design the reactor geometry in such a way that neutrons produced by the reaction don't have the opportunity to spawn more in follow-up reactions by having them escape the reactor vessel,” writes Henning Deskant. “Then, make up the balance by providing enough neutrons from an accelerator-driven reaction to sustain the nuclear fission process. Once you pull the plug on the accelerator, the fission reaction cannot sustain itself. Not only does this technology allow us to get rid of extremely worrisome long lasting radioactive material, but a nice side effect is that it will also alleviate our energy security worries, as this design is well suited to also use Thorium as fuel.”

Image: The cooling towers of the Eon nuclear power plant in Grohnde, Germany. (Timothy Fadek, Corbis)

Graphic: SCK/CEN