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$1.2 Million Grant To Clemson University For Studying How To Safely Deploy Plutonium Waste


Because plutonium, a radioactive byproduct of spent nuclear fuel, can move pretty fast through the soil, the U.S. Department of Energy granted $1.2 million to Clemson University scientists to study how the nuclear substance interacts with soil and how damages to the environment could be minimized.

“Plutonium contamination in soils can be transported in groundwater away from the site and possibly contaminate drinking water supplies for populated areas,” said Brian Powell, an assistant professor of environmental engineering and Earth science and principal investigator on the project.

By calculating how much energy is used in the process of interaction of plutonium with soil, Powell plans to develop theoretical models that will allow his colleagues to better estimate how fast it moves through and how to limit the possibility of it contaminating drinking water. He will use experimental and computational studies with data taken from the Savannah River Site in South Carolina and the Hanford Site on the Columbia River in Washington. An exact determination, though, will be made by using X-ray spectroscopy and quantum mechanics.

Co-principal investigator Yuji Arai, an assistant professor in Clemson’s entomology, soil and plant science department, will oversee the spectroscopy experiments. Co-principal investigators Udo Becker and Rodney Ewing at the University of Michigan will oversee quantum mechanical calculations and high-resolution electron microscopy experiments.

“The central part of this work is quantifying the energetics of chemical reactions occurring between plutonium and the soil particles,” Powell said. “When plutonium sticks to a soil particle, we don’t know how much energy is involved and what the driving forces for the reactions are. If we can determine how much energy is transferred, it will be easier to predict how fast it can move through the subsurface.”

Besides the dangerous game that nuclear power plants play, although they emit no greenhouse gas, storing the waste is the most harmful part of nuclear. There have been other studies in the past that included injecting pressurized hydrogen and using something called the “hydrogen effect.” Others thought reusing the waste or using bacteria to reduce the contamination factor.

Either way, nuclear fuels are an important energy treasure that we already have for billions of years in our Earth’s crust. Using them wisely seems to be a matter of time, but sustaining that nuclear should be shunned from the energy perspective is as false as saying that we won’t ever get to Mars because it’s too dangerous for the crew.

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