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An Attempt to Turn Nuclear Waste into Glass

The aging underground steel tanks at the former Hanford nuclear weapons are leaking at an unprecedented rate.

The Hanford Site is a mostly decommissioned nuclear production complex operated by the United States federal government on the Columbia River in the U.S. state of Washington. It has an interesting –if creepy history. Established in 1943 as part of the Manhattan Project in the town of Hanford in south-central Washington, the site was home to the B Reactor, the first full-scale plutonium production reactor in the world. Plutonium manufactured at the site was used in the first nuclear bomb, tested at the Trinity site, and in Fat Man, the bomb that detonated over Nagasaki, Japan.

Decades of nuclear weapons production have produced 56 million gallons of plutonium, cesium and other radioactive sludge that is seeping into the ground beneath. This represents one of our nation's most alarming environmental emergencies. One million gallons of sludge from about a third of the 177 underground tanks have leaked into the soil, and some of it has already reached aquifers under the plateau.

The Columbia River, the West's biggest waterway, is seven miles downhill from the waste and under a worst-case scenario, could be hit by the plumes in as little as 50 years, according to the Washington State Department of Ecology.

The U.S. Energy Department has known about this problem for many years and has been working for the last 24 years to develop a highly advanced 12 story facility, the size of a football field, to transform the radioactive muck into glass or “vitrify” it for easier disposal.

It’s a great idea but unfortunately has to date been an abysmal failure. After spending over 13 billion dollars, the U.S. Department of Energy officials ordered a halt to construction on the most important parts of the waste treatment plant after outside experts raised warnings that the technology for mixing the waste in processing tanks could cause dangerous buildups of explosive hydrogen gas and might allow plutonium clumps to form potentially causing a spontaneous nuclear reaction.

I’m all for promotion of ways to safely dispose of nuclear waste products and have been delving deeply into research on thorium reactors amongst other alternatives, but the bottom line is the sooner we end nuclear proliferation, the more time future generations will have to clean up the mess their parents left for them.

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