The UK’s National Nuclear Laboratory (NNL) has shown it is possible to turn radioactive waste into nuclear batteries to use in deep space, writes the Financial Times.
The NNL, a government-owned nuclear research organisation, has managed to extract americium from waste plutonium stored at Sellafield, the UK’s nuclear reprocessing site. There is around 100 tonnes of plutonium left over from fuel reprocessing currently stored in ponds at Sellafield.
Americum is the radionuclide commonly used in smoke detectors, as attested to by the many YouTube videos that suggest extracting it from hundreds of the devices yields enough radioactive material to build your own nuclear reactor at home.
Thankfully, the researchers at NNL work more scientifically – using a combination of computer simulations and physical experiments to show that the issues involved in the separation of americium from plutonium are solvable. Their work paves the way for production of the nuclear batteries, which will be used by the European Space Agency in spacecraft for missions to deep space, where the solar energy is insufficient to meet all the power requirements.
According to the NNL, once the European Space Agency decides to advance the project, a prototype and eventually a production line will be developed to extract the americium and manufacture the batteries.
Nuclear batteries have been used to power thermoelectric generators in spacecraft since the 1950’s. A recent famous example includes the Mars Curiosity probe. Thermoelectric generators use the heat from decaying isotopes to keep instrumentation and other systems warm, as well as generate the electricity required to keep the spacecraft running. Another advantage of the setup is the lack of mechanical parts to go wrong and reduced weight of the system.
Without a viable storage solution, coming up with ideas about what to do with the plutonium at Sellafield is / should be high on the government’s agenda. Making a few quid out of the stuff is generally speaking a good idea. At least, using it to power spacecraft seems a much better option than firing it into the sun.