11 December 2010

What Weighs 300 Tons, Moves 20 mph, Takes 4 Days to get to Hanford, and Heats Nuclear Waste over 2,100 Degrees?

Migrating all the way from the Peterson Inc. construction plant located in Ogden, Utah, the 125-ton vitrification plant melter concluded its 800-mile journey to its new home at the Hanford Waste Treatment Plant. It is the second and final melter to be assembled at Hanford to begin operations on Bechtel’s plant that will be the world’s largest radioactive waste treatment plan for the United States Department of Energy. What has been termed the Hanford Tank Waste Treatment and Immobilization plant aims to reduce and process Hanford’s 53 million gallons of radioactive waste.

Vitrification proves to be a bright possibility in reducing the massive amount of chemical and radioactive waste currently stored at Hanford. By combining the waste with glass-forming materials to over 2,100 degrees Fahrenheit, the mixture can be poured into steel canisters for permanent storage. Once in the glass form, the waste is stable and much less reactive.

With an estimated completed construction date of 2016 and fully operational date of 2019, we have several years until we can see the vitrification plant’s possibility. This proposal sheds hope for a possible step in the right direction for fully cleaning up the hazardous waste stored in Hanford. The Hanford Site has 177 tanks of liquid waste, with 67 of them suspected to have leaked in the past, and only 28 double-shell tanks. With a history of attempts at storing this hazardous waste in our Washington state, the ability to do something with what is a dangerous threat to our environment is promising. The repeating history of Hanford is ignoring the danger the nuclear waste poses on the environment, and leaving the responsibility of cleaning up to future generations. While we cannot take back what has been done in the past, we can still make sure these next generations would not have to deal with what we continue to avoid. We should start identifying this waste, and figuring out the best means of cleaning it up. I fervently hope in the cleanup of Hanford, especially the highly radioactive waste, and I believe vitrification can speed this along.

This post was written by Paul Glantz, a Medical Anthropology and Global Health Junior at the University of Washington and a volunteer with Heart of America Northwest.

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