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Four ways to get rid of nuclear waste

As Hanford tanks keep leaking and nuclear sites keep generating radioactive waste, scientists keep wondering where to stash it.
Hanford's B Reactor

Hanford's B Reactor davidjlee/Flickr

What will last 24,000 years?

Surely not the new 520 floating bridge, or the new Sonics arena — if it's ever built. Grand Coulee dam? Forget it. Ditto downtown Seattle and, alas, probably the Cascade glaciers.

But the waste created by some 45 years of plutonium production at Hanford, and power production at nuclear plants all over the United States, will stay dangerously radioactive for at least that long.

The late Alvin M. Weinberg, who as a young man worked on the Manhattan Project and later headed Tennessee's Oak Ridge National Laboratory, once said that our commitment to store plutonium waste beyond its 24,000-year half life had no parallel in recent human history — unless, perhaps, you count Hitler's instruction to his architect, Albert Speer, to design buildings that would last throughout the reign of the Thousand Year Reich.

At Hanford, of course, the high-level waste from mankind's first plutonium factory was originally dumped into single-walled steel tanks. Leaks were first detected in the late 1950s. Starting in 1964, waste was dumped into double-walled tanks.

Plutonium production at Hanford ended in 1987, plutonium processing three years later. Under a 1989 agreement with the federal Environmental Protection Agency and the state Department of Ecology , the U.S. Department of Energy has committed to cleaning out the tanks and encasing the wastes in glass. The Waste Treatment Plant — aka the vitrification plant — at Hanford is already well behind its original schedule and well above its original budget. In early June, the feds told the state that they'd miss two significant cleanup deadlines. Some people doubt the vit plant will ever be finished or, if it is, that it will ever perform as expected.

In the meantime, the federal government has turned its back on the long-planned nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain, which is where everyone expected the vitrified waste from Hanford — and the waste now glowing blue in pools at the nation's nuclear reactors — to wind up. A Blue Ribbon Commission charged with proposing alternatives to Yucca concluded that somehow, at some future date, the waste should go to some kind of repository in some state that was eager to have it. While virtually everyone assumed that under the 1989 agreement, the feds would ship Hanford wastes out of Washington, that was not an explicit commitment, so for the foreseeable future, that waste isn't going anywhere.

And neither is the waste stored at the nation's other nuclear plants.

Yucca Mountain, Nevada: Where nuclear waste won't be going to die. cyanocorax/Flickr

But hey, people have dreamed up plenty of ways to put radioactive waste out of sight and out of mind. The Blue Ribbon Commission had a consultant put together a list . Other nuclear nations have been brainstorming too. Some of the brainstorms seem more bizarre than others. Here are a few:

1. How about loading the radioactive waste into rockets and shooting it into the sun? (Alternatively, forget hitting a target, even a large one like the sun, and just blast the waste into outer space.) The sun has a whole lot of thermonuclear fusion going on all the time. The fusion fire will consume the waste. The sun won't miss a beat. End of problem. Or not.

Battelle researchers came up with the sun idea in the 1970s, and it got a lot of press. While people were still thinking about it, Edward Teller, the "father of the hydrogen bomb," came to the University of Washington to give a lecture. At a press conference before his lecture, Teller was asked about the idea of shooting radioactive waste into the sun. Teller was intensely pro-nuclear. Confronting the idea that radiation could cause mutations, he once said, well, some mutations are positive. Confronting this particular scheme for nuclear waste disposal, Teller brooded a moment, then replied, in his thick Hungarian accent, "Putting the radioactive waste together with the rocket fuel . . . I don't like it. I just don't like it!"


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Comments:

Posted Wed, Jul 10, 11:03 a.m. Inappropriate

It's possible to build "breeder" reactors that produce "waste" that can fuel other reactors. The US has been adverse to doing this for some kind of inexplicable reasons. Since the supply of uranium, like other resources, is finite, it makes no sense to treat it so wastefully.

dbreneman

Posted Thu, Jul 11, 6:58 p.m. Inappropriate

send it to Washington D.C., maybe they will filibuster it

salmonjim

Posted Fri, Jul 12, 8:03 p.m. Inappropriate

I'm really surprised that you didn't mention the amazing ideas that have been dreamed up to warn people away from contaminated sites for the next absurdly long length of time when compared to human civilization. See Wikipedia for: "Human Interference Task Force." You will enjoy it while you weep.
Oh, Homo sapiens, you have evolved to become Homo hubris.

Steve E.

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