Professor Gareth Law: Nordic countries are pioneers in planning the permanent storage of nuclear waste

A nuclear waste researcher unafraid of nuclear power wishes for precision in waste management.

Signs of the disaster at the Fukushima nuclear power plant, which took place seven years ago, are still visible in the surroundings of the disabled plant. Circling the reactor is a safety perimeter of approximately 20 kilometres in diameter that still contains an abundance of radioactive isotopes.

Radiation is easily measured, but understanding the chemistry of different radionuclides is not that simple. Gareth Law, a professor of radiochemistry at the University of Helsinki seeks to understand the chemistry of radionuclides in the natural environment, nuclear wastes, and materials.

Law has visited and worked in the Fukushima nuclear exclusion zone, and the most tragic impression on Law was left by the Fukushima evacuees.

“Many of them had large houses and gardens, but now they have been living in temporary cabins going on seven years, waiting for the safety zone to be cleared. That brought home the realities of what happens when things go wrong with nuclear power.”

Based on his experiences, Law might be thought to oppose nuclear power. However, he thinks it is a very important tool in the fight against carbon dioxide emissions.

“I believe we need more nuclear power due to climate change. It’s an important part of providing a balanced mix of energy whilst minimising hydrocarbon use. At the same time, we also need better safety measures and ways in which to manage nuclear waste.”

The latter is Law’s speciality. He has worked extensively on techniques to clean up sites and materials contaminated by radioactive isotopes.

Cleaning contaminated structures, such as piping, with high-pressure water is one promising solution. Through the method, the radioactive material is removed from the metal surface into water.

“Once in water, we can more easily deal with the radionuclides, as opposed to disposing of large pieces of industrial equipment as radioactive was,” Law notes.

On the other hand, water-soluble radionuclides if present in soil and rock can easily be transported by water. Here, Law has examined how microbially-controlled remediation of contaminated land in mining locations and at nuclear sites provides a promising clean-up tool. With the help of microbes, water soluble radionuclides can be fixed in soils as solids; this stops them moving through the environment.

The Nordic countries are pioneers and leaders in the field of nuclear waste disposal.

Law is moving to Finland from Manchester. He says that his interest in Finland was particularly piqued thanks to the plans drafted here for the permanent storage of nuclear waste.

“The Nordic countries are pioneers and leaders in the field of nuclear waste disposal. I am very much looking forward to seeing how things are done in Finland.”

Gareth Law

Professor of radiochemistry

Born in 1981 in Lurgan, Northern Ireland

Doctoral research on metal and radionuclide behaviour in the Arabian Sea, Open University, UK, 2003-2006 

Postdoctoral researcher at the University of Leeds, 2006–2010

Researcher at the University of Manchester, 2010–2011

Research team leader at the University of Manchester, 2011-2018

Inaugural Lecture 5th December 2018