News Feature | January 24, 2017

Fukushima Water May Benefit From New Purification Technique

Sara Jerome

By Sara Jerome,

Researchers at Rice University and Kazan Federal University in Russia say they have discovered a new way to purify water contaminated by radioactive metals.

They claim that their discovery could help restore water contaminated by the Fukushima nuclear plant disaster in Japan. The findings were published by the journal Carbon.

According to the study, the technique centers on a carbon-based material created by the researchers by applying oxidative treatment to natural carbon sources. The researchers say the method is relatively inexpensive and can be used in traditional filtration columns. It is effective at extracting materials that “are among the most difficult to remove from the waters at the Fukushima nuclear plant,” including cesium and strontium, the study said.

The researchers say their discovery will be helpful beyond the Fukushima disaster as well. “There is a constant need to develop advantageous materials for removing radioactive waste from aqueous systems,” the study says. Rice chemist James Tour, who worked on the project, noted that the material can “easily trap common radioactive elements found in water floods from oil extraction, such as uranium, thorium and radium,” Rice University said in a statement.

Tour said in a statement: "Carbon that has captured the elements can be burned in a nuclear incinerator, leaving only a very small amount of radioactive ash that's much easier to store. Just passing contaminated water through [the] filters will extract the radioactive elements and permit safe discharge to the ocean. This could be a major advance for the cleanup effort at Fukushima."

The researchers touted the effectiveness of their method, per the statement:

In column filtration tests, which involved flowing 1,400 milliliters of contaminated water through an filter in 100-milliliter amounts, the filter removed nearly 93 percent of cesium and 92 percent of strontium in a single pass. The researchers were able to contain and isolate contaminants trapped in the filter material.

Gizmodo noted that this group of researchers has attacked the nuclear waste issue in previous studies:

The same team of scientists have in the past reported that a material called graphene oxide could filter out one common radioactive element, strontium, but not another one, cesium. Plus, graphene oxide is pretty expensive. That brought the researchers to [the new method], which is ten times cheaper than graphene oxide and can be produced from a commercial carbon coke source called C-seal-F, or from “shungite,” a naturally occurring rock in Northwestern Russia.

Japan underwent a major nuclear disaster six years ago. "The blast and collapse of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant as a result of a devastating earthquake and tsunami in March 2011 released cesium-134 at unprecedented levels," USA Today reported.

The Tokyo Electric Power Company is still in the process of decommissioning Fukushima’s reactors, according to the Daily Express.