By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 19, 2009
The Catholic University of America announced Friday that it had been awarded one of the largest research contracts in its history to work on converting liquid nuclear waste to glass, a process that renders it comparatively stable and safe.
The university's Vitreous State Laboratory has landed the first of several contracts totaling $36 million to work on one of the nation's two largest sites of high-level nuclear waste, along the Savannah River in South Carolina. The lab is already working there and at the larger Hanford site, along the Columbia River in Washington state. The contract runs for six years.
Catholic University is a leader in the field of vitrification, a process that converts decades-old nuclear waste into glass. Millions of gallons of waste, left over from the manufacture of atomic bombs, are stored in steel tanks. The tanks occasionally spring leaks, imperiling the surrounding environment. Once transformed into glass, the waste remains radioactive but cannot seep out.
Researchers are racing against time. It will take decades to convert the waste from liquid in underground tanks to stable glass. The oldest of the tanks date to the Manhattan Project. They were never intended as long-term solutions, said Ian Pegg, director of the laboratory. Some tanks at Hanford are known to have sprung leaks.
"They set aside all of this waste to be dealt with another day," Pegg said. "That day has come."
The contracts support work toward speeding up the vitrification process and increasing the amount of waste that can be safely packed in glass, Pegg said.
At the present rate of work, waste treatment at Hanford won't be complete until 2047. Work at Savannah, where 36 million gallons of waste are stored in 49 tanks, will continue until about 2030. The waste comes from bombs produced there from the early 1950s until 1991.
"Every year of operations is hundreds of millions of dollars" in tax funds, Pegg said.
The vitrification lab opened in 1968 and sits on the Catholic campus off North Capitol Street in Northeast Washington. It has a staff of 80. The grants reaffirm its currency as "an invaluable resource for our nation," said the Very Rev. David M. O'Connell, university president.