A team from the UK’s Imperial’s Centre for Nuclear Engineering is collaborating with partners in the UK and Japan to carry out research to help with the cleanup of nuclear contamination following the Fukushima nuclear accident in Japan.

Researchers are collaborating with partners to develop processes for capturing and disposing of radionuclides. The team is developing a glass material to mix with waste filters, which are melted to form a solid composite material that will be stable for thousands of years and suitable for disposal deep underground.

In the new project, the team aim to determine whether this material will be able to withstand the heat generated by the radionuclides as they decay. If it is sufficiently robust, this should mean the nuclear waste can be collected without the need for additional complicated processes for permanently sealing in the toxic material, processes that would be time consuming and expensive.

Professor Bill Lee, director of the Centre from the Department of Materials at Imperial, said: "Multinational collaborations like this one are the key way for finding solutions to some of the world’s most pressing challenges. It is paramount that we find a safe and inexpensive approach to seal in and store this leftover radioactive material if the clean-up at Fukushima is to be a success. The results of this project may also have implications for the way we dispose of the UK’s legacy wastes, including those in the ponds and silos at the Sellafield storage and reprocessing site."

During the cleanup process at Fukushima, contaminated cooling water is filtered through a High Dose Spent Absorbent (HDSA), which collects the radionuclides. The radionuclides generate heat as they decay in the HDSA and the Imperial team will develop computer models that quantify these heat levels. The data generated by the models will enable the team to gauge whether the glass material they are currently experimenting with will be able encase the radioactive HDSA and withstand the heat generated.

Other related projects will be carried out by researchers from the University of Sheffield and teams at the Kyushu and Tohoku Universities in Japan. The project is funded by the UK Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council and is expected to run initially for two years.

Photo: Water treatment tanks at Fukushima Daiichi (Credit: TEPCO)