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Seeking a Solution for Radioactive Waste in Argentina

(Video: M. Klingenboeck/IAEA)

Buenos Aires and Bariloche, Argentina – Wearing a pair of yellow, noise-cancelling earphones, Diana Lago stares into the flying metal pieces that whizz inside a glass cylinder. The shards are only mock-ups of radioactive sources, being put to the test by Lago and her fellow engineers in Argentina’s quest to identify the most appropriate method to treat the country’s nuclear waste.

In the world, there has been significant progress in treating radioactive waste over the last few decades. With the help of the IAEA, a young generation of Argentinean scientists is adapting existing methods to safely treat this type of waste.

Through its technical cooperation programme, the IAEA is supporting the country with high-end equipment, training courses and fellowships.

Argentina generates 200 m³ of low and medium-level radioactive waste per year, in comparison to 10 million m³ of solid urban waste. Most of it comes from its three nuclear power plants, which provide electricity to 10% of the population. The waste also includes disused radioactive sources from healthcare, industry and research.

“Before disposal, we need to be able to convert our radioactive waste into something that will last for tens, hundreds or even thousands of years without releasing any radioactivity and reduce its volume to the extent possible,” said Lago, a nuclear scientist at the Bariloche Atomic Centre at Argentina’s National Atomic Energy Commission (CNEA).

(Infographic: F. Nassif/IAEA)

For every stream of waste, there are different treatment techniques. The key is to find the right ones for Argentina, she explained. “We need to have a good idea of what technological solutions are available out there and identify the ones that match our volume of waste and our radioactivity levels.”

Glass, rock, heat

From among the many safe, innovative techniques that exist to immobilize radionuclides in waste in low volumes, Argentina’s scientists are looking into various methods, said Elvira Maset, Head of the National Programme for Radioactive Waste Management at CNEA. These include pyrolysis, or thermal decomposition, and incineration through plasma or through vitrification.

Thermal decomposition, or waste gasification, is a technology new for Argentina. It involves ionized gas. “We heat up waste in a special oven using ionized air to understand how we can treat the sources and decrease their volume,” said Franco Benedetto, a researcher at the Bariloche Atomic Centre, who has received training through IAEA fellowships in Russia and South Africa.

Another method they are considering is vitrification, which entails heating sources to very high temperatures, until their elements are decomposed and can be bonded into an extremely resistant type of glass. The result is an insoluble, solid waste form that will remain stable for many thousands of years.

Training the young

One of the spinoffs of the IAEA’s support is that it’s benefiting a generation of young engineers, something the nuclear industry is in need of. The institutions the IAEA is working with through CNEA — the Bariloche Atomic Centre, the Constituyentes Atomic Centre and the Ezeiza Atomic Centre — provide an interface with universities across Argentina.

“The old guard is retiring.” said Vittorio Luca, CNEA scientist at the Constituyentes Atomic Centre. “And the young people are here to fill their shoes.”

The young scientists consider the IAEA’s role in information sharing crucial. “It’s not just theoretical training,” said Rodrigo Curi, a scientist at the Constituyentes Atomic Centre who undertook an IAEA fellowship at the University of Sheffield in the United Kingdom. “It’s giving access to high-level facilities, infrastructure and working methods in more advanced countries – and that makes all the difference.”

To specialists in this field, finding the best waste treatment method from the palette available is crucial for waste disposal.

“Our results are important to Argentina because it allows our policymakers to be in a condition to use these waste treatment methods whenever the country will need it,” Curi said. “Ultimately, we’re helping protect future generations.”

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