TOXIC BREW of radioactive waste lies just 10 feet below technicians working to replace a pump in a million-gallon storage tank at the Hanford site in Washington State. Image: DEPARTMENT OF ENERGY OFFICE OF RIVER PROTECTION
The tons of toxic waste left over from nuclear weapons production--including plutonium, uranium, cesium and strontium isotopes, as well as the now radioactive processing additives--sit unremediated in belowground storage tanks and bins at three U.S. Department of Energy sites. Even if the controversial "permanent disposal" effort at the Yucca Mountain repository in Nevada proceeds, there still will not be sufficient room to hold the entire mess.
To cram the waste into what space eventually opens up, nuclear scientists and engineers have been working on various methods to segregate the extremely dangerous wastes from the merely hazardous ones. The idea is to reduce the quantity of the most deadly high-level waste that must be buried, allowing the less threatening low-level waste to be consigned to cheaper belowground storage facilities nearer the surface. Separating out the highly radioactive materials also allows engineers to control the radioactivity and heat generated in the glass media that would store the waste, boosting the safe capacity of storage repositories.
This article was originally published with the title Divide and Vitrify.