skip to main content

SciTech ConnectSciTech Connect

Title: Scientific Solutions to Nuclear Waste Environmental Challenges

The Hidden Cost of Nuclear Weapons The Cold War arms race drove an intense plutonium production program in the U.S. This campaign produced approximately 100 tons of plutonium over 40 years. The epicenter of plutonium production in the United States was the Hanford site, a 586 square mile reservation owned by the Department of Energy and located on the Colombia River in Southeastern Washington. Plutonium synthesis relied on nuclear reactors to convert uranium to plutonium within the reactor fuel rods. After a sufficient amount of conversion occurred, the rods were removed from the reactor and allowed to cool. They were then dissolved in an acid bath and chemically processed to separate and purify plutonium from the rest of the constituents in the used reactor fuel. The acidic waste was then neutralized using sodium hydroxide and the resulting mixture of liquids and precipitates (small insoluble particles) was stored in huge underground waste tanks. The byproducts of the U.S. plutonium production campaign include over 53 million gallons of high-level radioactive waste stored in 177 large underground tanks at Hanford and another 34 million gallons stored at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina. This legacy nuclear waste represents one of the largestmore » environmental clean-up challenges facing the world today. The nuclear waste in the Hanford tanks is a mixture of liquids and precipitates that have settled into sludge. Some of these tanks are now over 60 years old and a small number of them are leaking radioactive waste into the ground and contaminating the environment. The solution to this nuclear waste challenge is to convert the mixture of solids and liquids into a durable material that won't disperse into the environment and create hazards to the biosphere. What makes this difficult is the fact that the radioactive half-lives of some of the radionuclides in the waste are thousands to millions of years long. (The half-life of a radioactive substance is the amount of time it takes for one-half of the material to undergo radioactive decay.) In general, the ideal material would need to be durable for approximately 10 half-lives to allow the activity to decay to negligible levels. However, the potential health effects of each radionuclide vary depending on what type of radiation is emitted, the energy of that emission, and the susceptibility for the human body to accumulate and concentrate that particular element. Consequently, actual standards tend to be based on limiting the dose (energy deposited per unit mass) that is introduced into the environment. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has the responsibility to establish standards for nuclear waste disposal to protect the health and safety of the public. For example, the Energy Policy Act of 1992 directed the EPA to establish radiation protection standards for the Yucca Mountain geologic repository for nuclear wastes. The standards for Yucca Mountain were promulgated in 2008, and limit the dose to 15 millirem per year for the first 10,000 years, and 100 milirem per year between 10,000 years and 1 million years (40 CFR Part 197; So, the challenge is two-fold: (1) develop a material (a waste form) that is capable of immobilizing the waste over geologic time scales, and (2) develop a process to convert the radioactive sludge in the tanks into this durable waste form material. Glass: Hard, durable, inert, and with infinite chemical versatility Molten glass is a powerful solvent liquid, which can be designed to dissolve almost anything. When solidified, it can be one of the most chemically inert substances known to man. Nature's most famous analogue to glass is obsidian, a vitreous product of volcanic activity; formations over 17 million years old have been found. Archaeologists have found man-made glass specimens that are five thousand years old.« less
Publication Date:
OSTI Identifier:
Report Number(s):
Journal ID: ISSN 1947-8070; TRN: US1400372
DOE Contract Number:
Resource Type:
Journal Article
Resource Relation:
Journal Name: Architectural Glass Concepts; Journal Volume: 5; Journal Issue: 1
Seattle, WA
Research Org:
Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL), Richland, WA (US)
Sponsoring Org:
Country of Publication:
United States