If new research is correct, the element californium could revolutionize the way in which we store radioactive waste and discard radioactive fuel. The study, which was published in Nature Chemistry, discovered that californium bonds extremely well with and can even separate materials, all the while having a very high resistance to damage from radiation, meaning it could be used to solve the problem of storing radioactive waste through its use in new types of storage containers, and could even help in the recycling of radioactive fuel.
The chemical element californium, atomic number 98, is a radioactive element which was first produced at the University of California, Berkeley in 1950. Named after California and the University of California, it has the second-highest atomic mass of all elements that have been made in large enough amounts to be able to be seen with the human eye. Californium is, however, the heaviest natural element on Earth to be found in workable amounts. Heavier elements can only be obtained through synthesis, but any use of californium must be undertaken with full knowledge of its radioactivity and the fact that it has the ability to accumulate in skeletal tissue and disrupt the formation of red blood cells.
The new study, based at Florida State University, was led by professor Thomas Albrecht-Schmitt and included scientists from nine other institutions. The results, he says, sound “almost too good to be true.” Albrecht-Schmitt’s research not only delves deeper into the element californium, represented on the Periodic Table of Elements as Cf, as far as its properties and capabilities, but could also lead to the development of new methods for the storage of radioactive waste. In addition, its ability to separate radioactive fuel could lead to the fuel being recycled.
There is, however, one big problem. Californium is extremely expensive. In the past, californium research was done only on a scale of micrograms. Albrecht-Schmitt’s study used only 5 mg of the element, yet it cost $1.4 million in addition to years of working with the U.S. Department of Energy. An endowment covered the cost of the californium for Albrecht-Schmitt’s research, which was ultimately obtained by the DOE’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory, which is the only High Flux Isotope Reactor in the United States that produces californium. The element is also made in Russia at the Research Institute of Atomic Reactors. Naturally-occurring californium is found on Earth in very concentrated uranium deposits, and only in very small quantities. Traces have also been discovered near places where californium is used to prospect for minerals and for medicinal use. It bonds very well to soil and can be found 500 times more concentrated in the soil than in the water surrounding it. Before 1980, government nuclear testing added small quantities of californium to the environment – quantities so small that it is not considered a major radionuclide by the DOE.
Perhaps in time, with more research and the ability to produce the element in greater quantities, nuclear waste storage could be much safer, causing the production of nuclear power to meet less public resistance due to fears regarding nuclear waste storage. The increased production of nuclear power would decrease the rate at which humans burn fossil fuels, leaving a cleaner Earth for future generations.
By Jennifer Pfalz