Radiochemistry: an answer to societal challenges
The amount of cancer patients in the world rises every year. To this day, no final solution for the management of high-level radioactive waste is available. Society therefore faces some challenges. Radiochemistry can provide an answer to these challenges. What is radiochemistry? Radiochemistry is the part of chemistry which deals with radioactive substances. Scientists study chemical processes on irradiated and natural radioactive materials in order to apply them in the chemical and medical sectors. In the medical sector, for example, these processes are used to produce medical radioisotopes. These radioisotopes are essential in the fight against cancer. They are used worldwide to diagnose, treat and monitor cancer during treatment.
Separation chemistry as a key competence
Radiochemistry plays a central role in SCK CEN’s large projects. Separation chemistry is one of the key competences of the research centre in the development of new radiochemical processes. Thanks to separation chemistry, scientists obtain purified products. High purity is necessary for the characterisation and implementation of those products. In recent years, SCK CEN has joined forces with the main European radiochemical laboratories. This has enabled the research centre to broaden and strengthen its expertise in that field.
The application possibilities are wide. These three areas are the backbone of the radiochemical research of SCK CEN.
Three research areas
Uranium is the nuclear fuel of a reactor: the fuel will last for about four years. When irradiating uranium, neptunium, americium and curium are created. Those elements, the so-called minor actinides, have a high radiotoxicity and a long half-life. On top of that, they generate a lot of heat. SCK CEN separates and isolates them through liquid-liquid extraction. Afterwards, the separated elements are converted back into a solid material to be burned as a new fuel in a reactor such as MYRRHA. As a result, they do not end up with the high-level radioactive waste. In doing so, SCK CEN reduces the burden and risks of geological disposal for future generations. How does this conversion from liquid to solid take place? SCK CEN uses, among other processes, an innovative sol-gel process for this. The result is round microspheres: small, yellow spheres, only one millimetre in size.