Being a bit of a film and TV geek, I’ve always been fascinated by how nuclear science – be it in the form of bombs or radioactive waste – has been portrayed on the silver screen. I’ll never forget one of the first times I sat in front of the television to watch The Simpsons, with those images of Homer messing with glowing crystals and Lenny declaring ‘3 days without an accident’ beaming out at me. In a strange way, that cartoon is one of the many reasons why I decided to go into nuclear research. Thankfully, the nuclear energy industry is not run by Montgomery Burns and is one in which I am excited to be a part of.
My name is Gunther and I am currently working towards a PhD at the University of Manchester. My research focuses upon the UK’s nuclear waste inventory.
Nuclear waste is a hot topic in this country at the moment because the Government, along with the nuclear authorities, are trying to determine where we can store it without damaging the environment. You may have heard in the news recently that Cumbria County Council doesn’t want this waste stored in an underground facility, leaving the Government with few too little options now.
This waste generally contains all of the radioactive rubbish that comes out of a nuclear reactor after the fuel has been burnt up to produce electricity. Whereas some of this waste, known as High Level Waste (HLW), is highly radioactive and still generating heat, the waste I am looking at is radioactive but doesn’t give off heat; known as Intermediate Level Waste (ILW).
Currently, we store this waste in above-ground storage facilities. The big problem we have at the moment though is where these facilities are placed around the UK, with some being built near coastlines. Subsequently, the containers are exposed to a varying amount of marine aerosol, which contains aggressive chloride salt, produced by breaking waves and water particles being thrown up into the air. As nuclear waste is held in stainless steel containers, it can corrode/rust when exposed to this marine aerosol. To help you think about what’s going on, imagine parking your car along the shoreline for a number of years. You’d probably come back to see your once shiny vehicle transformed into a palace of rust, due to the massive presence of oxygen and water along the coast. This simple process has big implications in the nuclear industry: when these containers rust badly, they may fail and become too dangerous to handle.
However, what if these harmful salts aren’t the only chemicals in the atmosphere? That is the question which forms the centre of my research. For many years it has been thought that marine waters – and aerosol - simply contained different salts. Recently, however, researchers have found that there are millions of organic species floating around in the air as well. These compounds are produced by those most unglamorous of organisms, which float around in the sea: Algae. Some of these algal species play a massive role in environmental processes and can lead to some crazy effects, including the production of vast amounts of sea foam in places like Australia. The coastline north of Sydney produces so much of this foam it’s been named the ‘Cappuccino Coast’.
My research is asking the question: what would happen if this organic gloop was placed on these nuclear waste containers? Would they protect the steel surface from all of those nasty salts, which simply want to eat away at the nuclear waste? Or would they help transport the salt to the surface quicker, thereby speeding up the corrosion process?
Being halfway through my research these are still questions which yet remain to be answered fully but that is what is so intriguing about science. To steal a phrase from Captain Kirk from Star Trek, scientific research is so exciting because you will ‘boldly go where no man [or woman] has gone before’.
I am also one half of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to Nuclear, a podcast and blog discussing opinions on nuclear-related topics.