Friday, May 29, 2009

The End of Nuclear Waste?

tcfo We’re pretty sure this is how we got The Incredible Hulk:

The NIF [National Ignition Facility] team will fire nearly 200 individual laser beams generated by an accelerator the size of a football field. The beams converge on a single target chamber containing a capsule of hydrogen. The hope is to compress it, and creating a subatomic reaction called fusion, ultimately igniting a controlled version of the same thermo-nuclear combustion that takes place on the sun.

Yes, this would indeed be fusion, under the auspices of the Lawrence Livermore Labs in California.

We have demonstrated that we can break every barrier," said NIF project manager Bruno Van Wonterghem. "We have broken the energetics barrier for the largest laser in the world. This is not only the highest energy laser, it is also the most precision laser in the world."

"And believe it or not, this is where we take the hydrogen in water and using Einstein's equation, turn mass into energy," explained NIF director Ed Moses.

"We're talking about igniting at the nuclear level and burning matter and turning it into energy," said Moses. "It's a very new thing. When we do this, it will change the way people think about their future."

To quote Rameses, Big talk for a guy wearing sandals, Moses. And how might this effect nuclear energy?

"That is a very interesting particle because it can penetrate the nucleus of another atom. So now we could take nuclear waste and use those neutrons to bust it up, get energy and remove the waste," said Moses.

To literally re-burn nuclear waste, engineers would create a separate compartment around the fusion chamber. The escaping neutrons would pass through the radioactive waste, igniting it. The result -- tons of material now piling up at nuclear storage sites around the country could potentially be burned a second time, taking most of the radioactivity out of it in the process.

We do take this seriously – the labs have been working on this for 10 years – and the science behind it is very interesting to the extent we understand it (to the extent we don’t, it’s likely even more interesting), but we’ve read enough about fusion to learn caution. And we’re not the only ones:

But they admit, the chances of a life engine plant becoming reality ultimately depends on one of the biggest experiments of our time, and whether hundreds of lasers can trigger fusion, creating energy from water.

Not sure how one judges an experiment the biggest – the Large Hadon Collider would seem up there too – but we’d bet success plays a big role. And we’ll add the usual issues about fusion when considering success – scaling, reliability, not soaking up more energy than it produces (a big issue in fusion) and of course, the little matter of turning Bruce Banner green. But we’ve only got a month to wait. We’ll see soon enough.

And by all means, click over here for a lot more, a lot of it fascinating, including a virtual tour. You too can thrill to having a couple hundred laser beams pointed at you.

“The final optics assemblies (FOAs) are mounted on the target chamber and convert NIF's nominal infrared (1,053-nanometer) laser light to ultraviolet (351nm) using a system of two nonlinear crystal plates made of potassium dihydrogen phosphate (KDP).” As we said above, to the extent we understand it, interesting.


Jason Ribeiro said...

To the extent that the LFTR reactor design could also "burn" nuclear waste, would that not be an easier and cheaper research and development route to accomplish the same thing?

SteveK9 said...

They've been at it for a lot more than 10 years. I had a phone interview to work in the target fabrication group in the 80's. I was really interested in fusion when I was 13 years old---in 1966. I've gotten a bit disillusioned. I'm much more interested in developments in fission - Gen IV, molten fluoride thorium, etc. than in fusion.

Luke said...

You really can't generate power out of NIF. In order to do that, you'd need a liquid lithium blanket surrounding the target chamber to capture the neutrons and breed more tritium, and you'd need a mechanism to constantly load tritium and deuterium into new target assemblies and load them into the target chamber in succession while the machine is running. You'd also need to capture the thermal energy dissipated by the neutrons scattering in the Li blanket and put the heat to work in an engine.

The ITER magnetic confinement fusion project is designed to address many of these technologies; NIF is not. NIF is very useful for what it was designed for; as a weapons physics facility, not as a power generator. It's a weapons physics facility which has had a lot of political marketing nonsense with regards to energy generation applied to it, and none of the latter makes any real sense at all.

Even to destroy higher actinides by fast fission; there are countless fission based proposals for that purpose that are far, far more well developed technologies.