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Radioactive Recycling: Turning Nuclear Waste Into Glass

Nov 05, 2016 11:34 AM EDT
An estimated 37,000 drums of nuclear waste are stored in retrievable burial grounds on the Hanford site
Workers prepare 55-gallon drums containing transuranic (TRU) waste for final shipment at the Waste Receiving and Processing facility (WARP) on the Hanford Nuclear Reservation near Richland, Washington. (Photo by Jeff T. Green/Getty Images)

Researchers from Rutgers University have discovered a new method to store nuclear waste: contain it in glass and ceramics. Ashutosh Goel, an assistant professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, has found a way to immobilize radioactive iodine in ceramics at room temperature.

"Glass is a perfect material for immobilizing the radioactive wastes with excellent chemical durability," said Goel. The immobilization of iodine-129 is one of Goel's main concerns. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, iodine-129 has a half-life of 15.7 million years and can disperse rapidly in air and water. Should it be released into the environment, iodine will linger for millions of years, targeting the thyroid gland and increasing the chances of getting cancer.

The U.S. Department of Energy, which oversees one of the largest nuclear cleanups in the world following 45 years of producing nuclear weapons, is one of Goel's major funders. The Hanford site alone in southeastern Washington manufactured more than 20 million pieces of uranium metal fuel for nine nuclear reactors near the Columbia River.

"What we're talking about here is highly complex, multicomponent radioactive waste which contains almost everything in the periodic table," Goel said. "What we're focusing on is underground and has to be immobilized."

Hanford plants processed 110,000 tons of fuel from the reactors. About 56 million gallons of radioactive waste went to 177 large underground tanks. This amount is enough to fill more than one million bathtubs. The Department of Energy estimated that around 67 tanks might have leaked. The liquids have been pumped out of the 67 tanks until only dried solids were left. The Hanford cleanup mission started in 1989 and then constructed a waste treatment plant for the liquid radioactive waste a decade later. Only 75 percent of the project is finished.

At the Hanford site, Goel plans to create glass with radioactive waste by 2022 or 2023. "The implications of our research will be much more visible by that time," he explained. Goel had been named principal investigator for six glass-related research projects totaling $6.34 million in federal and private funding.

The research may eventually help lead to ways to safely dispose of highly radioactive spent nuclear fuel that is stored now at commercial nuclear power plants.

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