Could this Lithuanian innovation be the solution to the nuclear waste challenge?

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Team working on SYLOS1. Photo credit: Light Conversion and Ekspla.

By Anders Lorenzen

Nuclear energy remains controversial, especially in the context of the recent hit HBO TV mini-series Chernobyl, which reminded the world of the dire consequences that poorly managed nuclear power can bring, even though such an accident would not be possible today as several safety measures and regulations were introduced following the accident.

A new innovation from Lithuania, however, could be poised to deal with one of the most controversial challenges of nuclear power plants; their nuclear waste.

Two Lithuanian laser technology companies, Light Conversion and Ekspla, have developed a laser which could ‘nullify’ nuclear waste. The jointly produced SYLOS is dubbed the most powerful and fastest high-intensity ultra-short pulse laser, which exceeds that of a nuclear plant by several thousand.

The principle of SYLOS is that when nuclear waste decomposition is accelerated by a high-intensity laser, the waste decay period can be cut short to seconds, hours, or months, depending on the material, an idea that came from Gérard Mourou, recipient of the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2018.

At present, radioactive nuclear waste needs to be stored in sealed containers for hundreds and thousands of years, raising concerns of possible spillages. As Dr. Artūras Plukis, Head of Experimental Nuclear Physics Laboratory at the Center for Physical Sciences and Technology in Vilnius says: “Currently, the disposal of nuclear waste is comprised of either storing the waste in containers on above-surface level or burying them underground, depending on the decay period of the radioactive material. This method is raising safety concerns, as some of the waste is disposed not too far from densely populated areas, and highly radioactive waste has to be safely stored for up to tens of thousands of years.”

Many experts are arguing that if we deal with the nuclear waste issue we would also deal with a lot of the opposition to nuclear energy.

Darius Gadonas, Head of the Scientific Laser Systems Division at Light Conversion, explains that one of the first things to crack is finance as the lasers could cost billions of Euros per unit, which means their development will depend on the political will of national governments to fund them.

Vilnius has become a heaven for laser technology with the city being home to numerous laser developers. It has an educational system geared towards providing the companies with a highly qualified workforce. Lithuania currently holds the third place the European Union for STEM bachelor graduates per capita.

With the severe impacts of climate change accelerating faster than many have hoped, the race is on to decarbonise our energy systems and economies. Nuclear can still play a huge role in this transition period if concerns around the technology are able to be addressed and innovations such as this one see the light of day.


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