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Diamond Light Source shines light on nuclear waste research

PUBLISHED: 16:27 20 September 2016 | UPDATED: 16:27 20 September 2016

Diamond Campus

Diamond Campus

UKAEA. For use by Harwell Campus organisations only

Oxfordshire based Diamond Light Source is shining light on nuclear waste research, putting Britain in the lead to make nuclear waste safe for 100,000 years

Ground-breaking scientific research conducted at Oxfordshire’s Diamond Light Source, the national synchrotron, will be showcased at the UK’s biggest festival of science, technology, ideas and discovery taking place this month.

British scientists from Sheffield University working with Diamond Light Source are designing a revolutionary cement that could withstand the impact of intense radiation for thousands of years. This project could prove vital in dealing with the challenges of Britain’s nuclear waste disposal. This scientific research will be showcased at the UK’s biggest festival of science, technology, ideas and discovery at New Scientist Live on 24 September at 14.30pm.

Currently the UK has enough radioactive waste to fill half of Wembley stadium. Some of it will take a million years to decay to safe levels, and would cost the UK £70 billion to manage. Although, the UK disposes of the low-level part of this waste safely, a small proportion is so radioactive and harmful to humans, it has to isolated for thousands of years. How to deal with this waste is a topic of much debate, and scientists like Dr Claire Corkhill of Sheffield University and her team are currently conducting pioneering research into how it can be safely stored.

“To work out how materials – in this case cement – are going to behave for tens of thousands of years – to ensure the waste remains safe and allows its radioactivity to decay to a safe level - is quite mind-boggling. But that is exactly what we are now doing,” says the project’s leader, Dr Corkhill. She will be presenting details of the project at the New Scientist Live event and highlighting how it is transforming the way we view the challenge of nuclear waste disposal.

The key to her team’s project is the UK’s Diamond Light Source, near Oxford. The facility accelerates electrons almost to the speed of light, so that they give off a light 10 billion times brighter than the sun. These bright beams are then directed off into laboratories, where they are used to study the properties of many different types of material: ice, viruses, cancer drugs – and cement. In the case of the cement being studied, Corkhill and her team have examined how it reacts with water over the long term. “That interaction between water and cement granules can go on for decades,” added Corkhill. “We are using Diamond to predict what cement will be like thousands of years in the future. No one has ever done that before.”

From this work, the group has designed a new form of cement which could then be used to cover nuclear waste inside underground stores. “That cement will be able to capture all of the radioactive elements that might be released from the waste over time,” added Corkhill. “Cements that are currently in use do not do this. Our cement will therefore make nuclear waste disposal even safer. I’m delighted to be speaking about my team’s work at the New Scientist Live event and believe our findings could help to shape future approaches to radioactive waste disposal.”


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