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The New Three Rs: Reuse, Recycle, Radiation?

The question of what to do with nuclear waste is as old as our ability to harness nuclear energy. Up until now, all nuclear byproducts have just been placed in storage facilities that will slowly decay over the next few hundred thousand years. Now it seems we are starting to make some progress.

Russell Goff, a master’s student at Oregon State University, has developed a method of using nuclear waste from commercial reactors to sterilize medical equipment and preserve food, according to NewsMedical.net. The new technology uses short-lived radioactive elements known as fission products that emit gamma rays.

While our society already uses gamma rays for irradiation of food and medical supplies, the technology is severely limited by the scarcity of controlled gamma rays such as cobalt 60. The report states, “The technology, if widely implemented, might allow each of the 104 nuclear reactors in the United States to create a revenue stream of $10 million a year while providing thousands of new jobs.” Applied to the United States, this is now a $1 billion industry. Applied to the world’s 435 reactors, it is a $4 billion global industry.

“The U.S. already uses about half of the world’s supply of cobalt 60 for various types of irradiation and the process can be expensive.” Goff adds in the report. “The new system we’ve created should be significantly less expensive, and as such could open the technology to more routine uses. We could double the world supply of gamma rays with this new technology and still won’t come close to meeting the market demand for this valuable resource.”

Private company G-Demption LLC has acquired a provisional patent and will attempt to commercialize the product. If successful, this is the first step towards widespread acceptance of nuclear energy and the additional recycling of products we didn’t even know could be recycled.

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