A team led by Professor Ken Ledingham at the University of Strathclyde have successfully transmuted the radioactive isotope iodine-129, a major waste product of nuclear power, into the more friendly isotope Iodine-128 using laboratory lasers. This is the first time an isotope has been altered by this method.

Iodine-129 has a half-life of 15.7 million years, making it difficult to dispose of. Professor Ledingham and his colleagues irradiated iodine-129 with a laser beam and succeeded in turning it into Iodine-128 which, with a half life of just 25 minutes, can be safely handled and disposed of within an hour. Currently such waste is vitirified and then stored or buried.

The new technique is potentially cheap and efficient enough to be applied on an industry wide scale. Achieving that is the next step in development, along with applying it to other radioactive isotopes. Professor Ledingham is seeking funding to develop a laser system large enough to cope with the volume of Iodine-129 produced by the nuclear power industry.

The discovery may also provide an easier way of producing the isotopes needed to operate the PET scanners used in hospitals and in research. These isotopes are currently manufactured in cyclotrons, which are large, expensive and rare. Professor Ledingham hopes to be able quickly to apply his technique to the production of these isotopes and believes that this will be a practical reality within the next five years.