What is large-scale nuclear transmutation?

By bombarding materials with neutron radiation, a phenomenon called “nuclear transmutation” occurs. Skillfully deployed, nuclear transmutation can alter the atomic composition of highly radioactive waste (such as spent fuel from a nuclear reactor), changing it from an isotope with a long half-life and intense radioactive emissions into less-radioactive, shorter-lived low-level waste that can be more easily handled and disposed of. This process is called nuclear waste transmutation. In Phase II of our four-phase mission, we used small-scale transmutation to turn low-enriched uranium into diagnostic and therapeutic isotopes. Phase III is the next step in our nuclear separation and transmutation capabilities developed in Phase II to enable large-scale nuclear waste transmutation with the goal of solving the world’s nuclear waste problem.

An example of nuclear transmutation, when a neutron causes heavy isotopes to break apart into lighter isotopes.

Large-scale transmutation utilizes a source of high-energy neutrons capable of physically breaking up long-lived isotopes into shorter-lived fragments. We are also investigating the possibility of using this process to convert unusable or low-value nuclear materials, such as spent nuclear fuel, into higher-value materials, such as stable earth metals and isotopes.

Nuclear decay will reduce even highly radioactive waste into inert material—eventually. By bombarding high-level waste with neutrons to alter its composition, an intensely radioactive material with a half-life of hundreds of thousands of years can be transformed into low-level nuclear waste that can be more easily stored without risking environmental damage or health issues and lack the onerous burden of thousands of years of storage. Eventually, the end goal is that through nuclear transmutation, the long-lived radioactive waste is rendered either largely harmless or largely inert.

Our nuclear waste recycling solution

In Phase III, we plan to scale up our nuclear transmutation technology and infrastructure in order to tackle the problem of nuclear waste by not only transmuting high-level waste into low-level waste but also producing useful materials from the radioactive waste. Through nuclear transmutation, we believe that nuclear waste can be transformed into diagnostic and therapeutic isotopes, used in breeder reactors, and used toward all sorts of possible applications in the near future, such as fuel for nuclear spacecraft propulsion systems.

Our approach to solving the world’s nuclear waste problem is focused on two technological phases: processing and transmutation.

  • Nuclear waste separation and recycling: We plan to utilize the nuclear separation capabilities we developed in Phase II to remove future reactor fuels from the used nuclear fuel from fission reactors. We plan to further utilize our nuclear separation capabilities to extract the precious metal byproducts of fission reactions. The remaining byproduct material are expected to be transmuted into shorter-lived radioactive elements.
  • Nuclear waste transmutation: As we continue to advance our technology on the path to realizing fusion-based energy production, we plan to achieve increasing levels of neutron yield with our fusion technology, which will enable us to reduce the burden of fission-based waste through nuclear transmutation of radioisotopes into stable isotopes.