Solutions to Environmental Issues

Over four decades in operation, the Hanford Site in eastern Washington state had as many as nine nuclear reactors at a time working with five processing complexes to produce plutonium for America’s nuclear arsenal.

On the other side of the country, the Savannah River Site in South Carolina had as many as five reactors working through the Cold War to produce tritium and plutonium for the weapons program.

This security and nuclear research effort has produced wastes that are now the focus of a massive cleanup effort by DOE across several research and production facilities. Just between these two particular sites, hundreds of tanks now hold 90 million gallons of radioactive waste, enough to fill more than 130 Olympic-size swimming pools. Add to that millions of cubic feet of solid waste and tens of square miles of contaminated groundwater, and you get a feel for the agency’s greatest environmental challenge.

“The needs are just enormous, ” said Michelle Buchanan, ORNL’s associate laboratory director for physical science. “The tanks alone represent some of the toughest chemistry on the face of the earth. These wastes are a true witch’s brew of chemicals.”

Nuclear legacy

DOE has worked for decades to clean up its nuclear legacy, and the effort has been largely successful. Starting with more than 100 contaminated sites in 1989, the agency has completed cleanup at all but the 16 most challenging.

The remaining sites—which include some at DOE’s Oak Ridge facilities—are the toughest. In some cases they are prohibitively expensive to address using existing technology; in others, the technology just doesn’t exist. Consider, too, that radioactive waste will need to be isolated for thousands of years, and you can see the need both for new research and for strategies that make use of recent discoveries.

It’s a challenge in need of new solutions, some of which will certainly come from the agency’s largest science lab, ORNL. ORNL hosts unique and powerful research tools, including the world’s second most powerful supercomputer, the world's most intense reactor-based and pulsed neutron beams, and a variety of world-class scanning probe and scanning transmission electron microscopes. It also provides a collaborative environment for talented chemists, environmental scientists, engineers, geologists, biologists, materials scientists, physicists and computational scientists to put their heads together to solve common problems.

State of flux

Of all of DOE’s environmental challenges, the most vexing are the waste tanks, which hold a mishmash of highly radioactive, chemically hazardous and often corrosive substances. Some are liquid, some sludge, and even if you could analyze them completely, they are in a state of constant flux.

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