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Ultrafast lasers could dramatically reduce impact of nuclear waste

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Lithuanian laser firms Ekspla and Light Conversion have developed an ultrafast laser system that they say could be used to accelerate the radioactive decay of nuclear waste from tens of thousands of years to months, hours or even seconds – depending on the material.

The jointly produced SYLOS laser, dubbed as being ‘the most powerful among the fastest and the fastest among the most powerful’, is a high-intensity ultrafast laser with a peak power thousands of times higher than the power of a nuclear power plant. It is impulses such as this that have the potential to nullify the impact of nuclear waste, according to the two Lithuanian firms.

Currently, the disposal of nuclear waste is comprised of either storing the waste in containers on above-surface level or burying them underground, depending on the decay period of the radioactive material. This method has raised safety concerns, however, as some of the waste is disposed not too far from densely populated areas, and highly radioactive waste has to be safely stored for up to tens of thousands of years.

The initial idea that ultrafast lasers could potentially solve the nuclear waste disposal problem was raised by Gérard Mourou, one of the recipients of the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2018.

Speaking to the online scientific journal The Conversation earlier this year, he said:

‘Take the nucleus of an atom. It is made up of protons and neutrons. If we add or take away a neutron, it changes absolutely everything. It is no longer the same atom, and its properties will completely change. The lifespan of nuclear waste is fundamentally changed, and we could cut this from a million years to 30 minutes!

‘We are already able to irradiate large quantities of material in one go with a high-power laser, so the technique is perfectly applicable and, in theory, nothing prevents us from scaling it up to an industrial level. This is the project that I am launching in partnership with the Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commission, or CEA, in France. We think that in 10- or 15-years’ time we will have something we can demonstrate. This is what really allows me to dream, thinking of all the future applications of our invention.’

The SYLOS high-density ultrafast laser system might become a much-needed solution for this application, Ekspla and Light Conversion affirm. However, several challenges are yet to be met before laser systems such as this could be applied on an industrial scale.

‘We do believe that lasers like SYLOS can be adapted to solve the nuclear waste issue globally without leaving it for future generations to deal with,’ confirmed Darius Gadonas, head of the scientific laser systems division at Light Conversion. ‘How soon this could be achieved will depend on the political will of governments, since lasers and infrastructure of this kind could cost up to billions of euros per unit.’