A New Way to Remove Contaminants from Nuclear Wastewater

“We carefully measure the composition of all the stuff going in and out,” says Bazant, who is the E.G. Roos Professor of Chemical Engineering as well as a professor of mathematics. “This really opened up a new direction for our research.” They began to focus on separation processes that would be useful for health reasons or that would result in concentrating material that has high value, either for reuse or to offset disposal costs.

The method they developed works for sea water desalination, but it is a relatively energy-intensive process for that application. The energy cost is dramatically lower when the method is used for ion-selective separations from dilute streams such as nuclear plant cooling water. For this application, which also requires expensive disposal, the method makes economic sense, he says. It also hits both of the team’s targets: dealing with high-value materials and helping to safeguard health. The scale of the application is also significant — a single large nuclear plant can circulate about 10 million cubic meters of water per year through its cooling system, Alkhadra says.

For their tests of the system, the researchers used simulated nuclear wastewater based on a recipe provided by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, which sponsored the research and is a major builder of nuclear plants. In the team’s tests, after a three-stage separation process, they were able to remove 99.5 percent of the cobalt radionuclides in the water while retaining about 43 percent of the water in cleaned-up form so that it could be reused. As much as two-thirds of the water can be reused if the cleanup level is cut back to 98.3 percent of the contaminants removed, the team found.

While the overall method has many potential applications, the nuclear wastewater separation, is “one of the first problems we think we can solve [with this method] that no other solution exists for,” Bazant says. No other practical, continuous, economic method has been found for separating out the radioactive isotopes of cobalt and cesium, the two major contaminants of nuclear wastewater, he adds.

While the method could be used for routine cleanup, it could also make a big difference in dealing with more extreme cases, such as the millions of gallons of contaminated water at the damaged Fukushima Daichi power plant in Japan, where the accumulation of that contaminated water has threatened to overpower the containment systems designed to prevent it from leaking out into the adjacent Pacific. While the new system has so far only been tested at much smaller scales, Bazant says that such large-scale decontamination systems based on this method might be possible “within a few years.”

The research team also included MIT postdocs Kameron Conforti and Tao Gao and graduate student Huanhuan Tian.

David L. Chandler writes about energy, engineering, and materials science for the MIT News Office. The article is reprinted with permission of MIT News.