China Opens Its First Plant That Turns Nuclear Waste Into Glass

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(Image: Shubert Ciencia, CC BY 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons)

On Saturday Sept. 11 China opened its first plant that will turn radioactive nuclear waste into nearly benign glass using a process called nuclear waste vitrification.

The plant, located in Guangyuan, Sichuan province, is reported to be able to process several hundred cubic meters of highly radioactive liquid waste each year. 

The new process is being welcomed by China as it continues to expand its nuclear power facilities. Currently, China has fewer nuclear power stations than France or the United States, however it is rapidly expanding the use of the technology in an effort to cut the country’s carbon emissions. 

Nuclear power has been touted as a more sustainable form of energy due to nuclear power plants not producing any greenhouse gases. 

With several new reactors coming online each year in China, finding a solution for the waste that they create was becoming an increasingly difficult problem. 

Temporary solutions like crushing the waste and mixing it with water for storage in metal containers was identified as inadequate in the long-term. 

With the opening of the plant China joins a small list of countries that have been able to successfully implement the difficult procedure including the U.S., France, Germany and India.  

The idea has been around for some time but implementing the process has proven to be extremely difficult. Over the past four decades half of the 10 or so vitrification plants that have opened across the globe have been closed due to technical or financial difficulties, the South China Morning Post reported. 

When the technology was first experimented with, engineers would simply mix liquid radioactive waste and glass-making materials such as silica into a melting pot and heat the mixture to extremely high temperatures. But the radioactive waste was found to be extremely corrosive at high temperatures and difficult to manipulate.

Plants in the United States and Europe developed a superior technology that would heat the liquid in an electric oven to temperatures over 2,100 Fahrenheit to form glass, with a ceramic covering. The glass would then be stored underground where it would pose less of a risk to the environment. 

This is similar to the technique used at the Guangyuan plant that was approved for construction by the central government in 2009 and was based on German technology.

The process is not without its challenges though. The oven, where the radioactive substances are cooked, needs to be replaced every five years or so due to erosion; however scientists are exploring ways to keep the oven functioning longer by using water to cool the inner walls of the oven. This technique however is not yet ready to be implemented and poses numerous engineering challenges. 

Chinese researchers are expected to start construction on a plant that attempts to utilize this new method in 2024.