The Catholic University of America


Making a Special Kind of Glass

  9/11 service day

At VSL, J.B. Martin works to develop methods for the safe disposal of nuclear waste.

J.B. Martin

Senior Melter Operator

Vitreous State Laboratory

J.B. Martin works a 6:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. shift every day at the Vitreous State Laboratory (VSL) located in the basement of the physics building, Hannan Hall. “We’ve got no windows down here so many days I don’t catch my first glimpse of daylight until I leave work,” he says.

After 22 years of service on nuclear submarines and aircraft carriers, he says he’s used to it. When he retired from the Navy, Martin took a job with a nuclear utility company and then nine years ago he came to VSL. “I learned on the job,” he says. “This is a pretty unique place. There aren’t too many places that take nuclear waste and make glass.”

VSL is a leading research center for the studies of materials in their vitreous — or glass — state. The lab is best known for developing processes to transform highly radioactive nuclear waste into stable glass that can be disposed of safely.

When asked by others what he does for a living, Martin says, “I tell people to think back to the 1950s when we were engrossed in the Cold War. We were building up nuclear weapons. All of that ‘legacy’ nuclear waste that is left over is now stored in large tanks in the ground in Hanford, Wash. And the tanks are cracking, which can potentially contaminate the Columbia River. We are developing techniques to treat, process, and safely store that waste by making it into glass.”

Since 1996, the U.S. Department of Energy has awarded VSL more than $80 million for research and development support for the nuclear waste treatment program at Hanford. Although techniques developed at VSL are being used in other nuclear facilities in the United States, Great Britain, and Japan, the Hanford program has proved to be one of VSL’s largest and longest-running contracts.

VSL employs 100 Ph.D.-level scientists, engineers, and technicians. Martin says working closely with the scientists is one of the most rewarding aspects of the job. “On Mondays I get the recipes from the doctors and we mix the simulated waste with a very specifically researched set of chemicals and we begin test feeds. We might go back and forth a few times until we’ve got just the right formulation. Then we begin the actual process of converting the waste. We work with 55-gallon drums of feed at a weight of 1,100 pounds that get up to 1,150 degrees centigrade. We have round-the-clock shifts looking after the melter for each feed at all times until it’s done.”

Martin says one of the most exciting discoveries in the last year has been the development of a method to capture and recycle technetium, one of the most dangerous radioactive elements in the cleanup of millions of gallons of nuclear waste.

“There is a sense of camaraderie at VSL,” says Martin. “From the scientists to the technicians, we are all committed to the mission of making the world a safer place.”