If nuclear fusion turns out to be a practical way to generate electricity, it would greatly reduce America's problems of storing long-lived radioactive waste, says a Michigan expert.
However, James Martin, associate professor of radiological health at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, doubts that cold fusion, as claimed by University of Utah researchers, is feasible."My personal reaction is I'm skeptical because it goes against all the established theories of physics," he said during a recent interview in Salt Lake City.
But he said if it is possible, and is commercially developed, "it would be a great positive benefit in terms of producing waste, because the only (radioactive) waste that you really get in substantial quantities would be tritium."
Tritium has a half-life of just 12.3 years, he said. An element's half-life is the time it requires to lose half its radioactivity.
Because tritium's half-life is so short, it loses radioactivity quickly. Tritium waste would cause only "a small isolation problem, to isolate that for 100 years."
In contrast, the highly radioactive fuel rods used in fission reactors today must be isolated for hundreds of thousands of years, because they have long half-lives.
In addition to tritium, the neutrons released in fusion reactions could interact with other material and cause activation products - newly radioactive particles. "Those tend to be short-lived materials," Martin said.
"Those would be in the vessels, the pumps (of the reactor), solid forms," he said. "When you get done with your fusion reactor in the future, you'd probably have to deal with those neutron activation products some way or other."
These activation products also occur in fission reactors and must be handled carefully..
Martin doesn't think the shipping of radioactive waste across the country - such as to the soon-to-be-opened Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico - poses a serious threat to Americans.
"The material will be packaged up there in sealed containers, in a dry form," he said. The special shipping container, holding 20 55-gallon drums, "is designed to withstand collision without rupturing and to also withstand a 2,000 degree fire for about 30 minutes, which would protect the waste materials during an incident of the kind like a truck rolling over.
"If there were an accident, there would be very little likelihood of any leakage."