The Catholic University of America

Sept. 19, 2009

CUA Laboratory Awarded $36 Million for Nuclear Waste Immobilization R&D

Ian Pegg

The Catholic University of America's Vitreous State Laboratory (VSL) has been awarded the first of several contracts totaling up to $36 million to provide research and development to support the safe immobilization of nuclear wastes at the U.S. Department of Energy's Savannah River Site in Aiken, S.C.

For this new work, VSL - a leader in the science of converting nuclear wastes into safe, stable glass through a process called vitrification - will be a subcontractor to its long-term industrial partner, EnergySolutions Inc. (To read a Washington Post article about the contract, click here.)

"This is one of the larger-dollar-figure research contracts that Catholic University has ever received, and once again shows that the university's Vitreous State Laboratory is an invaluable resource for our nation," says Very Rev. David M. O'Connell, C.M., president of the university.

The new contract involves the 310-square-mile Savannah River Site, a major nuclear complex in the Department of Energy system. The nuclear materials for many of America's atomic bombs were produced there from the early 1950s to 1991 - a process which also created 36 million gallons of high-level radioactive waste that is presently stored in 49 underground tanks. Today, the site's primary mission is the cleanup of nuclear wastes left over from the Cold War.

To safely treat these wastes, a variety of facilities have been constructed at the site, including the Defense Waste Processing Facility, which uses a high-temperature furnace to convert the most radioactive nuclear wastes into stable glass, and the Saltstone Facility, which converts low-level radioactive wastes into a cement-like material.

In March, the Department of Energy awarded the $3.3 billion contract to operate these waste storage and treatment systems to the company Savannah River Remediation, LLC (SRR). After a 90-day transition period, SRR took over in July. The Vitreous State Lab's experience and scientific expertise contributed to SRR's winning proposal.

To help SRR fulfill its contract, VSL is teamed with EnergySolutions Inc. to provide R&D support that will improve the performance of the Defense Waste Processing Facility by increasing the processing rate and the "waste loading" - the amount of nuclear waste that can be packed into the glass. These improvements have the potential to significantly reduce the cost and duration of the cleanup mission.

At both of the major sites where America manufactured the nuclear material for its atomic arsenal - the Savannah River Site and the Hanford Site in eastern Washington state - VSL is playing a leading R&D role in the cleanup of nuclear waste. In fact, many of the enhancements that VSL has developed for the Hanford nuclear waste vitrification facilities - which are now under construction in Washington state - are also applicable at Savannah River.

The new contract runs for six years, with the Department of Energy having an option to extend the contract for two additional years before it is re-bid. Although the completion of the cleanup mission will extend many years beyond that, an important objective of the new contract is to shorten the project duration as much as possible.

"Savannah River Remediation is pleased to be working with Catholic University's Vitreous State Laboratory and EnergySolutions, who together bring world-class expertise in advanced glass formulation and joule-heated melter technologies. This capability forms a crucial component of SRR's strategy for bringing substantial improvements in the waste-loading and glass-production rate performance of the Defense Waste Processing Facility at the Department of Energy's Savannah River site," said Cliff Winkler, engineering manager for SRR.

"This project extends a long, successful and mutually beneficial partnership between VSL and EnergySolutions, wherein VSL innovations have been commercialized and delivered to the Department of Energy to enhance facility operations and reduce long term costs," said Brad Bowan, senior vice president of engineering and technology at EnergySolutions.

"We've had to be patient because of the long time between proposal development and final award for such large contracts," says Ian Pegg, director of VSL, professor of physics and CUA's principal investigator for the new project.

"We began testing to develop our proposal in 2006, which included glass-formulation development and melter testing using simulated Savannah River wastes to demonstrate the performance enhancements that we could bring," he says. "The procurement process took longer than we expected but we're obviously very pleased with the outcome."

MEDIA: For more information, contact Katie Lee or Mary McCarthy in Catholic University's Office of Public Affairs at 202-319-5600.