[ RadSafe ] Article: Nuclear waste gets star attention

John Jacobus crispy_bird at yahoo.com
Mon Aug 7 11:01:47 CDT 2006

>From Nature Published online: 4 August 2006  
Personally, I try not to explain quantum mechanics to
any member of my family.

Story from news at nature.com:

Nuclear waste gets star attention

Claims of 'neutralizing' radioactivity grab headlines
and have even piqued the interest of Madonna. Phil
Ball explains, to her and us, whether any of it will
solve our problems with nuclear waste.

Philip Ball
A crunch looms in dealing with nuclear waste, and so
there's no better time for airing unorthodox
solutions. The latest comes from a team of physicists
in Germany, who say that radioactive decay might be
speeded up by sticking the atoms in metals cooled to
within a few degrees of absolute zero.

The claim is disputed by other scientists, although
the findings of the German group seem genuinely
puzzling. The key question, however, is how we are to
deal with such reports. Some techniques for altering
the half-lives of radioactive elements have a basis in
sound science — but others lurk at the wilder fringes.
Can they be told apart?

I've had unusual cause to ponder these questions. A
few years ago, I found myself in the rather surreal
situation of trying to explain to Madonna why it is
generally beyond the means of science to tamper with
rates of radioactive decay. 
She had heard (don't ask me how) about a team of
Russian scientists who claimed to have developed a way
to treat water so that it can 'neutralize' radioactive
waste. They had data allegedly showing that the
process worked on a lake contaminated by the Chernobyl
accident. Since I had written a book about water, I
was summoned as a putative 'specialist' to discuss the

So there we were: me, Guy Ritchie, 'Mrs R', and a
clutch of excited scientists, talking for a couple of
hours about a way to eliminate the carcinogenic legacy
of nuclear power (or not).

Water works

Madonna has made no secret of her interest in this
work — she has been quoted on it in Rolling Stone
magazine. I was told soon after our meeting that a
California-based company was interested in working
with the Russians and Madonna to promote the
waste-treatment scheme. But they never got back in
touch with me, so I've no idea what came of the plan.

One can hardly blame a non-scientist for being excited
by claims of "a way to neutralize radiation". As I
tried to explain on that strange afternoon,
radioactive decay can't be 'neutralized' in the same
way that, say, one might neutralize a nasty acid. Yet
that's not to say it is totally beyond our influence.

The Russian scientists suggested that their process
might have something to do with the 'quantum Zeno
effect', a phenomenon in which quantum probabilities
are altered by repeated measurement1,2. In principle
it might be possible to exploit this effect; but it is
normally tiny, and it's far from obvious how it might
be translated into anything remotely useful, let alone
how it might be induced by 'electromagnetically
processed' water, as suggested by the Russians (who,
to my knowledge, have never published the work).

More credible, I think, was the report by a team of
researchers in Japan in 2004 that they had decreased
the half-life of the radioisotope beryllium-7 by
almost 1%, or half a day3 (see 'Radioactivity gets
fast-forward',). The researchers trapped atoms inside
electron-rich, soccer-ball-shaped cages of carbon,
making it slightly more likely that an electron would
find its way into the nucleus and bring about the
transmutation of the radioactive element.

But the team couldn't make the effect any larger; the
prospect of using it to speed up the decay of nuclear
waste, they admitted, was "somewhat remote".

Cold comfort

Claus Rolfs of the Ruhr University in Bochum, team
leader of the latest attempt to accelerate nuclear
decay4,5, is more optimistic about his own findings,
saying that they suggest the possibility of reducing
the half-life of radium-226, a hazardous component of
spent nuclear fuel, from around 1,600 years to just 1
year. "This means that nuclear waste could probably be
dealt with entirely within the lifetimes of the people
that produce it," Rolfs says.

His approach is somewhat similar to that of the
Japanese work, placing the radioactive atoms in the
electron-rich environment of a metal. The metal's
'sea' of free electrons can enhance the probability
that a positively charged particle might be ejected
from the nucleus — as happens in some types of
radioactive decay — as well as raising the chance of
decay by electron capture, Rolfs says. Lower
temperatures apparently bring the free electron closer
to the radioactive nuclei.

Rolfs's team and their European co-workers have
reported a decrease of about 1% in the half-life of
sodium-22. And recently they described similar effects
for heavy metals, suggesting that the technique could
be viable for the elements typically found in
radioactive waste — such as radium. But the estimate
on how fast these elements could be made to decay is
so far only theoretical.

Other nuclear scientists have said that the findings
contradict earlier experiments and, more damningly,
current understanding of solid-state physics.

Magic bullets

But they are at least based on a plausible and
testable theory. That's probably more than can be said
for some of the 'nuclear remediation technologies'
circulating on the fringes of science. 

One of the favourites involves Brown's gas, a putative
form of water 'discovered' by American engineer
William Rhodes in the 1960s and championed
subsequently by the Bulgarian-Australian physicist
Yull Brown. As well as 'neutralizing radioactive
waste', this 'oxy-hydrogen gas' (produced by what
seems to be basically electrolysis of water) is said
to burn like a fuel, weld metals, support breathing,
help plants germinate and relax muscles. 

If it sounds too good to be true, that's because it
surely is. Like perpetual motion or the idea of water
as fuel, a magic bullet for nuclear remediation has
become something of a cultural myth. The fiction of
cold fusion (advocated, for one, by Yull Brown) was
also mooted as a way to transmute nuclear waste to
harmless forms. There's a pattern to these fantasies,
and I can't help feeling that Madonna's magic water
fitted it rather closely.

Under the carpet

Yet the problem these claims confront is a very real
one. Last month, the UK's Committee on Radioactive
Waste Management criticized the failure of British
governments to address the issue of waste disposal for
more than three decades, and insisted that a site for
deep burial must be found very soon. In the United
States, the favoured site of Yucca Mountain in Nevada
won't be accepting waste until 2017 at the earliest —
if at all.

These delays reflect a public discomfort about
sweeping waste under the carpet. Burial is not a
pretty solution. But at the moment, alternatives based
on 'neutralizing' radioactivity look as unreachable as

So all of us, celebrities included, will probably just
have to learn to live with the stuff.

Visit our newsblog to read and post comments about
this story. 

Kofman A. G.& Kurizki G. Nature, 405. 546 - 550
(2000). | Article | PubMed | ISI | ChemPort |
Fischer M.C., et al. Phys. Rev. Lett., 87. 040402
(2001). | Article | PubMed | ChemPort |
Ohtsuki T., et al. Phys. Rev. Lett., 93. 112501
(2004). | Article | PubMed | ChemPort |
Limata B., et al. Eur. Phys. J. A, 28. 251 - 252
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Kettner K. U., et al. J. Phys. G. Nucl. Part. Phys.,
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Story from news at nature.com:

  © 2006 Nature Publishing Group | Privacy policy 

>From an article about physicians doing clinical studies: 

"It was just before an early morning meeting, and I was really trying to get to the bagels, but I couldn't help overhearing a conversation between one of my statistical colleagues and a surgeon.

Statistician: "Oh, so you have already calculated the P value?"

Surgeon: "Yes, I used multinomial logistic regression."

Statistician: "Really? How did you come up with that?"

Surgeon: "Well, I tried each analysis on the SPSS drop-down menus, and that was the one that gave the smallest P value"."

-- John
John Jacobus, MS
Certified Health Physicist
e-mail:  crispy_bird at yahoo.com

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