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Hanford report reveals problem with nuclear waste solution

Hanford report reveals problem with nuclear waste solution

An internal federal document says the preparation for turning nuclear waste into glass logs will produce toxic vapors. Crosscut, by John Stang, April 11, 2022
Fourteen years behind its original deadline, the Hanford Nuclear Reservation is scheduled to begin turning radioactive wastes into benign glass in 2023.

However, an internal federal document said the preparatory process for this work will produce toxic vapors from a substance called acetonitrile, which would be unsafe for workers and people and animals that live nearby.

In fact, that complication has not been studied, said the U.S. Department of Energy report dated Aug. 27, 2021.

On March 2, 2022, the Washington State Department of Ecology sent a message to the U.S. Department of Energy, asking for answers on this issue. That came after the state agency received a March 1 letter on the matter from the Seattle-based watchdog organization Hanford Challenge, which obtained the internal document. 

As of Friday, the state has not received a reply from the DOE. And DOE’s Hanford headquarters declined to provide anyone to discuss the matter with Crosscut. A spokesperson wrote in an email that the issue has been resolved, but did not provide any details.

In emails, the DOE and major contractor Washington River Protection Services, which designed the glassification equipment, both said the public can ask questions about this matter at a May 10 public hearing related to permits for acetonitrile-related equipment at the glassification plant. But neither the federal government nor its contractor would elaborate on the internal memo that raised concerns about acetonitrile, which will be used to re-treat the nuclear waste before it is turned into glass logs.  

Written public comment is being accepted through June 4. 

Acetonitrile, which exists in liquid and vapor forms, is easily ignited by heat, sparks or flames. When ignited, it gives off hydrogen cyanide fumes and potentially flammable vapors. Short-term effects from exposure can range from eye, nose and lung irritation to heart irregularities and death. Long-term, exposure could enlarge the thyroid gland and damage the liver, lungs, kidneys and the central nervous system.

The Hanford Nuclear Reservation was created in late 1942 to create plutonium for America’s atomic bombs in World War II and the Cold War. Producing plutonium required nuclear reactors and massive radioactive chemical extraction plants. The worst of the radioactive wastes from those facilities ended up as liquids, sludge and gunk in 177 leak-prone underground tanks on the 586-square-mile complex along the Columbia River in Benton County in south-central Washington. These tanks hold 56 million gallons of waste on what is arguably the most radioactively and chemically contaminated spot in the Western Hemisphere. The site’s overall cleanup began in 1989. 

Hanford’s longtime master plan has been to convert those wastes into benign glass. Originally, glassification was supposed to begin in 2009 and completed by 2021 at a cost of $4 billion. Numerous budget, technical and engineering problems have bumped the price to $17 billion, with glassification to begin in late 2023 and end by 2069.
The first glassification facility is scheduled to start its work glassifying the least radioactive wastes in late 2023. Dubbed the “direct-feed low-activity-waste” plant, or DFLAW. It will glassify the least radioactive and least complex of the tank wastes following some preprocessing of the material. That pretreatment and acetonitrile are the subject of the 2021 memo.

While Washington River Protection Solutions did computer-model testing on the possibility of a liquid  acetonitrile leak during the pre-treatment process, it did not calculate for the possibility of acetonitrile vapors, according to the internal DOE memo………………………….

April 12, 2022 - Posted by | USA, wastes

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