Competition held to examine new markets and uses for nuclear fuel

Sunday, April 12, 2020 - 1:02pm

Four University of Michigan student teams competed virtually in the first prize competition, titled Reimagining Nuclear Waste, to address the social, political and economic challenges facing the advancement of the clean energy economy on Friday afternoon.

Four University of Michigan student teams competed virtually in the first prize competition, titled Reimagining Nuclear Waste, to address the social, political and economic challenges facing the advancement of the clean energy economy on Friday afternoon. Buy this photo
Courtesy of Laura Millar

Four University of Michigan student teams competed virtually in the first prize competition, titled Reimagining Nuclear Waste, to address the social, political and economic challenges facing the advancement of the clean energy economy on Friday afternoon. 

Co-sponsored by the University’s Center for Entrepreneurship, the competition hoped to encourage college students to brainstorm ways to alter the perception of nuclear waste in a society that currently distrusts the market. 

Students studying different disciplines related to nuclear power and nuclear waste worked in teams to form business proposals with hopes of winning the $17,000 award. The four teams discussed the many variables of their projects, including marketing strategies, safety procedures, intended clients, financial barriers and project benefits. Judges engaged with the proposals by asking questions at the end of each presentation. 

The first team, SustainiUM, discussed the sale of heat transfer, a process that uses energy from the cooling of spent nuclear fuel, which is metal rods that are held safely in large concrete casks. Afterward, the heat dries previously digested wastewater sludge. Rackham student Marianna Coulentianos, a member of the SustainiUM team, said this method could improve public perception of nuclear power plants. 

“I would like you all to close your eyes for a second and imagine our ideal future, a future where we don’t generate waste anymore because the things that we consider waste today are reused in a productive way,” Coulentianos said. “We’re here to tell you about one way to move towards the future.”

The next proposal, by Team Phoenix, focused on the recycling of plastic and the decomposition of plastic waste in landfills. Their members, including Engineering senior Mackenzie Warwick, were concerned about the delay of the effects of greenhouse emissions.

“Global climate change is something we are continually fighting,” Warwick said. “As you may know, the carbon cycle has about a 40-year delay. We are actually experiencing the effects from 1980. Today, based on current carbon emissions, I can’t even imagine what the effects will be.”

Team Nuclear presented their ideas for designing a nuclear battery that makes use of strontium-90, a metal that would allow the battery to last much longer. According to Art and Design senior Mika Reedy, a member of the team, the goal of their battery is to reduce radiotoxicity and to simplify the disposal process. 

“The greater implications behind this project are to provide an example of how spent fuel can be reprocessed,” Reedy said. “To show that it doesn’t have to be as everlasting as people have been led to believe.” 

The fourth team proposed using bulk gamma radiation sterilization, which uses high energy radiation to kill microorganisms, to repurpose nuclear waste. Rackham student Qinghui Meng, the leader of the team, addressed the difficulties they might face in delivering materials, especially cobalt-60, needed for this process.

“The cobalt-60 is mainly imported from Canada and Russia, and that costs a lot of money in terms of transportation fees,” Meng said. 

After the presentations, the judges discussed the four proposals. CFE Executive Director Jonathan Fay said he believes the competition was successful in engaging students to problem-solve from a variety of perspectives.

“We really achieved our goal of exposing students to a complex problem that has social dimensions from users, communities and customers from the technical aspects, the environmental aspects, the policy aspects and the economic aspects,” Fay said.

One week later, the University of Michigan’s Nuclear Engineering and Radiological Sciences program announced SustainiUM as the winner of the competition in a video posted to their Twitter and Facebook pages. Todd Allen, chair and professor in NERS, discussed how solutions like SustainiUM’s can transform public perception for the better. 

“The idea is, you ask people to reimagine the future,” Allen said. “So you end up with a solution, but you also change the public narrative around the issue.”

Contributor Laura Millar can be reached at lamillar@umich.edu

Correction: This article has been updated to better reflect the science behind SustainiUM's project.