Deep Pu

The USA Today recently ran an uncommonly in-depth article about the massive efforts to clean-up the decommissioned and horribly contaminated Hanford nuclear site in rural Washington state.

A relic of the Manhattan Project and the Cold War, Hanford was the primary site for the production and refinement of plutonium (atomic symbol Pu) for the U.S. arsenal of nuclear weapons.  It was plutonium processed at Hanford that went into the very first atomic bomb tested at Trinity in New Mexico in the summer of 1945, as well as the Nagasaki bomb that followed shortly thereafter.

At the center of what is claimed to be the world’s largest environmental remediation project is the construction of a ginormous vitrification facility:  to entomb huge volumes of highly-radioactive material inside glass capsules to render the wastes inert and thus safe for more conventional means of disposal.

It is an immense undertaking.  Over the nearly 50 years that the Hanford site operated from the early 1940s to the late 1980s — much of which without any considerations or standards for environmental protections — 56 million gallons of unimaginably toxic sludge was generated, accumulated and stored in 177 underground tanks, some of which are deteriorating. 

In 1989, after Hanford was finally closed, the relevant state and federal agencies reached an agreement on milestones for cleaning-up the mess, involving getting a treatment plant built and operational…within 12 years (by 2011).  Two years ago, seeing that even that deadline wouldn’t be met, an extension was granted…to 2019.

For those of you who want to be slapped in the face, think of how old you would be if you were lucky enough to live to the year 2049, as that’s when the current plan projects the clean-up will be complete, assuming the treatment plant will actually be operational seven years from now.  Given the delays so far, even that date so far in the future is likely to be overoptimistic.  So, cradle-to-grave, Hanford will have been a century-long plague on central Washington.  I guess that’s one of the costs of being forced to consider waging total war.

The other cost is economic:  $12.3 billion, and rising.  The global engineering giant Bechtel was selected to lead the effort to build the treatment facility, and it has been a tough slog.  (Bechtel is used to big projects with big overruns, having been the prime contractor for Boston’s decades-long “Big Dig” program.) 

The main focus of technical effort is ensuring that the toxic waste — which would fill a football field to a depth of 150 feet — doesn’t clog up as it flows through the treatment process.  As the USA Today article suggests, knowledgeable observers worry that clogs will in fact occur, with diastrous implications.  Because it will have become too radioactive to enter and repair, a clogged system will need to be abandoned, rendering the investment wasted.  In a worse case, hydrogen gases will accumulate, leading to an explosion akin to a dirty bomb.

In thinking about the engineers attempting to design and implement a solution, I have the mental image of a child with closed eyes and fingers-in-ears tiptoeing across a mine-field.

If you have any promising solutions to the technological nightmare at Hanford — and perhaps more importantly, if you have the courage to wade into this dangerous and bureaucratic challenge with gargantuan liabilities — your planet is calling you.

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