Seeking a way to de-nuke nuclear waste

September 17, 1997|By Mona Charen

WASHINGTON -- If you thought the computer chip and the laser were pretty amazing, hold on to your hat. The next decade is going to provide even more wonders.

What is the greatest environmental hazard we face? Arguably, it is nuclear waste. We currently inter the radioactive stuff in carefully designed graves at the site of existing commercial and military reactors.

But there is a plan for a permanent disposal site at Yucca Mountain. The facility, which will not be completed until early in the next century, is to be equipped with underground railroads and robot-operated cars to ensure that humans do not come into contact with waste materials. When the last deposit is made, the place will be sealed for hundreds of years.

Right now, while scientists test the Yucca site for underground water streams, seismic activity and such, we have massive political wrangling over what to do with nuclear waste in the meantime. By law, the government is obliged to start putting nuclear waste in interim storage in Nevada. But Nevadans are not hot on the idea.

L Wouldn't it be wonderful if nuclear waste could be de-nuked?

Enter human ingenuity. Toiling at a company called American Technologies Group, together with the California Institute of Technology, a team of scientists led by Shui-Yin Lo is working on an invention called the Baser. The Baser may solve the problem of nuclear waste entirely -- while creating new, clean energy in the process.

The Baser is a particle-beam laser consisting of (steady now) Bose-Einstein condensates. George Hague, writing in Final Frontier magazine, described a Bose-Einstein condensate this way: ''Imagine you're sitting around a conference table at work with a dozen of your colleagues. Simultaneously, all of you get up from your chairs and sit in the same chair. And all of you fit. Comfortably, too.''

That is because matter, when frozen to almost absolute zero, takes on strange properties. And since it does, it is possible, and Dr. Lo has patented the process, to create a beam out of particles of Bose-Einstein condensates that could make lasers look crude and weak by comparison.

In the short run -- say, within about five years -- the Baser will be useful for precision cutting of semiconductors and computer chips. It will also have medical applications, like microsurgery. But in the slightly longer run, the potential of this technology is truly awe-inspiring.

The Baser creates a beam that has the power to transform those radioactive wastes lying under the desert in Nevada into non-nuclear, benign materials. In the process, heat will be created that can be used for other purposes. Later, the Baser will have the capacity to transform rocket propulsion, creating a great deal more thrust with much less fuel.

When I was a little girl, my father, who taught physics and was a lifelong science cheerleader, used to tell me that there was enough energy in a teaspoonful of water to take the Queen Elizabeth II to London and back again. How? Fusion energy.

Our current nuclear technology is fission -- splitting the atom of a densely packed element like uranium. Fission, as everyone knows, creates abundant, cheap energy but leaves behind nuclear waste.

Fusion is what happens on the surface of the sun. Hydrogen atoms, with one proton, fuse into helium, two protons, at a temperature of millions of degrees.

Fusion creates even more abundant and even cheaper energy than fission, since hydrogen is available everywhere. And there is no radioactive waste. The Baser, at higher power levels, will create sufficient energy to produce fusion. It could be the start of a new era.

The capacity of this country to generate life-enhancing inventions continues unabated. We attract the world's best minds. In addition to Dr. Lo, who is from China, the scientists on the Baser team have names that bespeak the magnetic pull of America: Michio Okumura, Natalia Ivanovna Afanasyeva, Vijay Dhir and Anmin Liu, as well as Mary Lidstrom and Charles Young.

For more than a century this has been one of America's greatest strengths -- opportunity, innovation, inventiveness. It gives rise to the hope that for every technical problem there is a technical solution. And if there is a technical solution, chances are someone in America will discover it.

Mona Charen is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 9/17/97

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