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University of Iowa establishes research group on nuclear energy and waste

Posted March 30, 2018

Mikaela Pyrch pauses for a moment to admire her creations.

Behind protective glass on a laboratory bench sit vials containing vibrantly colored crystals—iridescent blue, neon yellow, pitch black. Pyrch, a first-year graduate student in chemistry at the University of Iowa, created the compounds to learn whether they would be good candidates for solving an enduring problem in the United States: how to safely use and dispose of nuclear waste.

“Everything we do here is fairly novel,” says Pyrch, who’s from Denton, Texas, and earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in chemistry from George Washington University in Washington, D.C. “We characterize a ton of new structures. We make new things every day.”

A new, growing group of scientists at the University of Iowa is researching how to address the storage and potential reuse of nuclear waste. Armed with grants from various federal agencies, UI faculty in chemistry, engineering, and radiology are also educating undergraduate and graduate students about the work. Illustration by Tim Schoon.

Pyrch is part of a growing research enterprise at the UI working to address nuclear energy and waste. Funded primarily by federal grants, the UI program has gathered a squadron of scientists—in chemistry, engineering, and radiology—to determine how to deal with stored nuclear waste without damaging the environment or threatening human health, and to train the next generation of scientists to study and solve the issue.

“There has been initial investment from all levels of the university to support our program, and in response we have been able to secure funding from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), the Department of Energy, the National Science Foundation, and the National Institutes of Health,” says Tori Forbes, associate professor in the Department of Chemistry, who established the UI’s nuclear research core. “A lot of these funding agencies look at the UI as the up-and-coming program, and we have long-term plans to make the UI nationally renowned as an expert in this area.”

The U.S. is facing a reckoning with its spent nuclear fuel. Nuclear waste is stored across the country in water-resistant metal tubes. But many of these tubes are decades old and have become susceptible to corrosion. If the waste—all of it radioactive—were to escape, the damage to the environment, and to people, could be significant.

“The issue is these casks are not meant to last for that long, and our nuclear waste is so radioactive that it’s going to take hundreds of thousands of years before it decays to levels where it’s safe,” says Forbes, who joined the UI in 2010. “So, we need to come up with a strategy to deal with the waste where we can make sure that it’s stored safely, recycled, or reused.”

One strategy is to recruit new talent into radiochemistry, the field that studies the chemistry of radioactive elements, which is dealing with the realities of a retiring workforce. Forbes and Michael Schultz, associate professor in the Department of Radiology, obtained nearly $500,000 from the NRC to support graduate students performing research in radiochemistry and to train them to work safely with radioactive materials.

“We have lots of issues, yet we continue to kick the can down the road, hoping that a future generation will take care of it,” Forbes says. “Part of that problem is that while we’re kicking that can down the road, we haven’t invested in training for our students. So, we’re losing knowledge.”

The UI is attempting to reverse that trend.

Madeline Basile is one of the more than two-dozen graduate students in the UI’s radiochemistry program and plans to pursue a career working with nuclear waste and radioactive materials.

Basile joined Forbes’s lab as a sophomore and completed an undergraduate internship between her junior and senior years at the Savannah River National Laboratory, a government-run nuclear research facility located near Aiken, South Carolina.

Now a fourth-year graduate student, Basile says she is motivated “by the global need to understand this science.”

“I genuinely want to develop a unique skill set, and I want nothing more than to pass on my knowledge to the next generation of nuclear chemists,” she says.

Forbes and Schultz have conceived a course, Radiochemistry: Energy, Medicine and the Environment, to pique undergraduates’ interest in radioactive and nuclear chemistry. The class has grown from 16 students when it started in fall 2013 to nearly 50 this spring.

“One thing we’ve realized is if we don’t reach out to undergraduates, then they’re not even going to know about radiochemistry and the problems with nuclear waste and storage,” Forbes says. “In this class, we teach them all the basics.”

The grant also spawned research opportunities for other faculty in chemistry and engineering, and led to the hiring of Scott Daly, assistant professor of chemistry. Daly was an assistant professor at George Washington University when he learned about the position at the UI.

“Until then, I was unaware that Iowa had a radiochemistry program or even interest in one,” says Daly, who joined the UI in 2014 and studies the chemical bonding and reactivity of radioactive metals.

Forbes’ lab bustles with researchers seeking to isolate actinides—radioactive elements created when making nuclear power—and investigate whether at least some of these elements could be reused as an energy source rather than simply stored as waste.

Pyrch holds up one of the colorful vials to show one of her creations, a series of yellow crystals bunched at the bottom of the tube. She and others test an actinide with metals and other materials to try and find a stable compound in which the radioactive element is safely isolated.

She likens the work to playing matchmaker.

“You’re coming up with dating rules for this element,” says Pyrch, who wears a necklace with a pendant showing the molecular structure of caffeine, “and if you can figure out what it’s like and how it behaves, then you might find a good match. There’s a strong current of creativity in this field.”

Source: University of Iowa

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