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Waste not: how Berkeley power station’s demolition may lead to batteries for the space programme, pacemakers and hearing aids

29 January 2020

Thirty years after being decommissioned, work has begun on removing nuclear waste from the Berkeley power station in Gloucestershire.

The dismantling of the world’s first commercial nuclear power station is creating an unusual opportunity: scientists at the University of Bristol want to ensure some of the waste is kept, in hopes that the site can be redeveloped to manufacture new batteries, a project with the added benefit of generating more jobs to the region.

They have developed a process that uses reactor core spent contents in a new power form—and have grown a man-made diamond that, when placed in a radioactive field, is able to generate a small electrical current.

How does it work? Carbon-14 from nuclear reactors is used to make the core of layered wafer-thin diamonds, man-made in special growth chambers. The radioactive beta decay of the Carbon 14 is converted to electricity within the diamond structure and gives the battery a constant small power output. By using carbon-14, which has a half-life of 5,730 years, the batteries could potentially provide power on a near-limitless basis.

The energy-producing radioactive material is encased in a non-radioactive diamond layer which completely absorbs the radiation given off by the Carbon-14 source. Given that diamond is considered the hardest known material, there are no further layers or material needed. It would be perfectly safe for humans to handle to diamond and therefore use the battery in medical devices such as pacemakers or hearing aids.

The tiny batteries could also potentially be sent into space as part of the space programme.

By extracting carbon-14 isotopes from the irradiated graphite, the radioactivity of the remaining material would be significantly reduced, making it easier and safer to manage–cutting time and costs for the clean-up operation.

Professor Tom Scott, the lead researcher for the project, known as APSIRE (Advanced Self-Powered sensor units in Intense Radiation Environments), says:

“Over the past few years we have been developing ultra-low powered sensors that harvest energy from radioactive decay.

“This project is at quite an advanced stage now and we have tested the batteries in sensors in places as extreme as the top of a volcano.

“The ultimate aim is to develop the technology on a commercial scale directly on the site of decommissioned reactors in the region. This would significantly speed up the waste removal process and also reduce the radioactivity of the materials as we would be recycling some of the most irradiated bits of material.

“With the majority of the UK’s nuclear power plants set to go offline in the next 10-15 years this presents a huge opportunity to recycle a large amount of material to generate power for so many great uses.”

The process is being piloted in association with the UK Atomic Energy Authority at the Culham site in Oxfordshire.

Links:
For a BBC article updating on progress at Berkeley, click here
Diamond-age’ of power generation as nuclear batteries developed (2016 press release)