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Out to Save the World

A world-class physicist and a high school student team up.

By George Harvey

Dr. Steve Reucroft is a group leader at CERN, the huge international particle physics laboratory in Switzerland. As such, we could say he is a world-class physicist. Alex Fay is a Boston-area high school student about to enter his junior year. He is a would-be physicist. The two of them have entered into an interesting collaboration. Their goal is to render all nuclear waste harmless.

The process by which they think this can be done uses a type of nuclear reactor that has yet to be built, though the design is over 25 years old. It is called an Energy Amplify (EA) or Accelerator-Driven System. The original design of the EA was the result of an assignment given a CERN team by Nobel laureate Carlo Rubbia. His assignment was to design a reactor that could not melt down under any circumstances, could not be used to make bombs, and could not produce long-term nuclear waste.

The EA that Rubbia’s team developed was originally intended to use thorium as fuel. It turns out that it can use spent nuclear fuel as fuel just as well. The waste it produces has short-lived isotopes in it, but scientists who have investigated it say it is about as radioactive as coal ash after 300 years. While it is not safe to handle straight out of the reactor, 300 years is a whole lot better than the tens or hundreds of thousands of years over which current waste remains dangerous.

One might ask why no such reactor has ever been built. That is an interesting question, largely because there is no answer from the point of view of science, technology, or economics. Reucroft and Fay believe that there is no reason not to try to get rid of nuclear waste, especially as all the underlying science has been tested and found to work. Also, the system would not only get rid of nuclear waste, it would produce power in the process.

So now, the world-class physicist and the high school student want to start the ball rolling and find a solution to one of the world’s pressing problems. They have started a Kickstarter campaign to raise $100,000, a modest sum in the world of nuclear power, to hire scientists to study solutions to proceeding with a greater project. The campaign is titled, “Destroy Nuclear Waste.” Anyone wishing to help with the project can find it by doing a web search on the title and “Kickstarter.” The project is hosted by ThinkIncubate, Inc. The web site is www.kickstarter.com/projects/300224948/destroy-nuclear-waste.

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