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An Actual Use For Spent Nuclear Fuel: Keeping Us Healthy

Spent nuclear fuel can’t generate electricity, but it’s still incredibly radioactive, which is why storing it is such a dangerous problem. But there are lots of helpful uses for radioactivity. G-Demption wants to use it to sterilize food and medical supplies.

Nuclear fuel waste is a contentious political issue. No one wants a repository in the backyard. So the 104 nuclear reactors in the United States have increasing stockpiles of the stuff, sitting in clear pools.

But Russell Goff, a masters student in the Department of Nuclear Engineering at Oregon State, thinks he has a use for it: sterilization of things like medical supplies and food. That might sound strange because you wouldn’t want any form of radiation near your food. But Goff is talking about isolating just the gamma rays, which are already used quite safely.

His patent-pending invention is a tube that holds a fuel rod, trapping the nasty radiation inside, while allowing the gamma rays to escape. He envisages taking the contained rods to a separate facility and passing products near the containers to kill any harmful microorganisms.

Gamma rays are commonly used to sterilize syringes and bandages, fruit, meat, and poultry, as well as by the jewelry industry to change the color of certain types of diamonds, quartz, and topaz. Goff says most irradiation is done using a particular isotope called Cobalt-60. But supplies are limited, and the alternative (Ethylene Oxide) is toxic and highly flammable.

Goff figures, Why not use a resource that’s already available—literally just sitting there. "The idea is to remove as much shielding as you can while keeping the environment and people safe, and letting these gamma rays out so that you can harvest them in a controlled manner," he says.

He says the nuclear industry has not considered the issue up to now because "the only thing people sitting in nuclear plants are thinking about is making electricity. The waste is just something they have to deal with." But, according to what he calls "conservative estimates," the spent fuel rods could generate at least $10 million.

It is very early yet. Goff only incorporated a company, G-Demption, to commercialize the idea in March, and there are likely to be multiple regulatory hurdles to clear. But he says people he’s spoken to in the industry have been enthusiastic.

"We were formed only a week ago, and we need to spend time raising awareness and doing marketing. But this could be a game changer when it comes to nuclear waste management."