The Catholic University of America

March 3, 2010

CUA Laboratory Receives $1.6 Million to Test Environmental Impact of Nuclear Waste Turned Into Glass

  The exhaust-treatment system for the Vitreous State Laboratory’s 30-ton, 2,000-degree melter at Catholic University.

As part of its ongoing research on transforming nuclear waste into solid glass that can be safely stored for thousands of years, CUA’s Vitreous State Laboratory (VSL) received a $1.6 million contract to test the long-term performance of such glass that will be produced and stored at the Washington state location where most of the plutonium for America’s arsenal of atomic bombs was created.

The source of the grant is the U.S. Department of Energy, through its funding of Washington River Protection Solutions, the company that oversees the 177 underground tanks of nuclear waste at Washington’s Hanford Site. The same company also oversees the ongoing preparations to turn the tanks’ 53 million gallons of liquid radioactive waste into glass through a vitrification process that will employ giant 2,000 degree Fahrenheit melters being constructed there.

Washington River Protection Solutions is in turn contracting out part of the vitrification preparations to a team composed of VSL and the company EnergySolutions Inc.

Under the new contract, the CUA laboratory will carry out a battery of tests to see how the glass product, partly composed of nuclear waste, will react with water, in order to make sure the glass will meet all environmental requirements.

Although the Hanford Site is located in a desert region, it does get an average of about 10 inches of rainfall per year. The testing will determine what happens when and if that water comes into contact with the glass and how the very slow rate of reaction compares with the natural rate of decay of the radioactivity that is contained within the glass.

The tests will determine chemical reaction mechanisms and other factors that will be used in computer models to predict the long-term performance of the glass in the disposal site over hundreds of thousands of years.

The vitrification of the Hanford waste, which is scheduled to begin in 2019, will produce two kinds of glass: one made from very highly radioactive waste and another made of low-radioactivity waste. The latter kind will end up in special underground facilities at the Hanford Site, and the Vitreous State Laboratory’s new research contract concerns this kind of glass. (The federal government has not yet determined where it will end up storing the high-radioactivity waste, which was previously destined for a repository at Yucca Mountain, Nevada.)

VSL is playing a leading R&D role in the cleanup of nuclear waste at both of the major areas where America manufactured the nuclear material for atomic bombs — the Hanford Site and the Savannah River Site in Aiken, S.C.

VSL maintains an array of five glass melters on Catholic University’s campus. The largest is a 30-ton, 2,000-degree, one-third scale prototype of the melters that will be employed at Hanford. Using the CUA melters, the laboratory’s scientists conduct research to develop safer and more cost-effective methods to convert wastes of diverse chemical compositions into stable glass.

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