China begins nuclear treatment for contaminated water

13 August 2021

Electron beam technology is being used to treat medical wastewater in China for the first time. It is safer and cleaner than traditional methods as well as more effective at removing organic molecules such as viruses and antibiotics, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said.

A worker operates the electron beam system (Image: CGN)

"This is the first pilot-scale - 400 cubic metres per day - demonstration of electron beam technology for medical wastewater treatment," said Shijun He, a professor at the Institute of Nuclear and New Energy Technology at Tsinghua University. The organisation worked with experts from the China Atomic Energy Authority and China General Nuclear (CGN) to add the technology to the wastewater treatment system dealing with medical waste in Hubei province.

The technology accelerates electrons to interact with DNA and RNA molecules in the water to kill microorganisms and destroy viruses, including the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. It also breaks down antibiotics in the water, which is something traditional sterilisation methods cannot do.


The self-shielding electron beam medical wastewater treatment unit (Image: CGN)

Sterilisation requirements vary from hospital to hospital, but a common technique used is to add disinfectant chemicals like sodium hypochlorite, a hazardous chemical that requires careful handling and leaves unwanted chemical reagent residues, said Liu Zhenwei, director general of Xiyuan Hospital. The electron beam system avoids these secondary sources of hazard and pollution. It also operates at room temperature and avoids the energy consumption of steam and heat-based treatment options. The electron beam system is self-shielding, so introduces no new radiation hazard for workers.

The IAEA celebrated China's achievement in the context of research and technical cooperation it has supported since 2010, investigating how radiation techniques can reduce the amount of unwanted organic molecules in the world's water supplies. In 2012, through this technical cooperation project, Chinese scientists developed a programme to treat wastewater. By 2017, China's first electron beam facility was inaugurated to treat industrial wastewater and in 2020 the country opened the world's largest such facility, treating up to 30 million litres of water per day.

Researched and written by World Nuclear News