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Four ways to get rid of nuclear waste

Hanford's B Reactor Credit: 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!"

2. We could let the waste melt its way to the bottom of the Antarctic ice sheet. An international treaty currently forbids such things, but hardly anybody goes to Antarctica. Unless . . . Well, if the climate changes over the next ten or twenty or hundred thousand years, and the ice cap melts, all bets are off. Even if you were willing to chance that, you'd have to find a way to get all that waste safely into the middle of Antarctica. Still, there would be certain advantages to storing nuclear waste at the South Pole: Unlike Nevadans, penguins don't vote.

3. What about lowering cannisters of waste into Davy Jones's locker? In the 1970s and '80s the U.S. and nine other countries spent $120 million studying ways to do just that: deposit nasty radioactive stuff into sediment on the deep sea floor. You'd find a spot in the middle of some tectonic plate, preferably a place that hadn't felt a seismic disturbance for millions of years. Then you'd basically dig holes in the seabed muck and drop your nuclear payload right in. (You could think of it as fitting the waste cannisters with cement overshoes and dumping them in the river, only deeper. ) Of course, you'd hope that nothing bad befell the submerged waste. On the plus side, giant squid don't vote, either.

4. Take radioactive waste that will be dangerous for more than 20,000 years and drop it into steel tanks that will probably fail in 20. Oh, wait. we already tried that.

In 1973, right before Hanford officials announced that 115,000 gallons of radioactive liquid had leaked from one of the old single-walled tanks — the largest known leak to date — the Nobel-Prize-winning, German-born physicist Hans Bethe was in Seattle for the summer teaching at the UW. At lunch in the U District, Bethe was discussing ways of handling nuclear waste. He thought there were plenty of options, that the constraints were less physical than political. One of his luncheon companions suggested that while a number of strategies might work, Hanford's approach of putting the waste into tanks certainly looked like a loser.

Not at all, Bethe said scornfully, "only cheap tanks leak!"

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