Research probes how radiation changes nuclear waste over time

Safe management of nuclear waste is vital to national security and a primary mission of the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). Approximately 300 million liters of highly radioactive wastes are stored in underground tanks at the Hanford Site in Washington and the Savannah River Site in South Carolina.

Wastes stored in tanks at Hanford have been there for decades. Radiation present in the wastes drives chemical changes that are neither well understood nor predictable. DOE estimates it will take at least 50 years and $300 billion to process the wastes into forms fit for disposal using currently available methods.

To gather knowledge needed to find new methods for safely disposing radioactive wastes, the DOE is tapping the expertise of radiochemists at Washington State University and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL).

Co-leading a collaborative research effort

The DOE awarded $12 million to establish an Energy Frontier Research Center at PNNL. It is one of 36 such centers nationwide that conduct fundamental research to build a scientific foundation for energy technologies of the future—and one of four centers established in 2016. Called the Interfacial Dynamics in Radioactive Environments and Materials (IDREAM), the PNNL center is led by WSU Regents professor and PNNL scientist Sue Clark.

PNNL leads IDREAM in partnership with WSU, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and three other universities. The team collaborates to study chemical reactions in radiation environments and other extreme conditions that cause nuclear waste to change over time.

Examining molecular interactions in extreme conditions

IDREAM aims to provide new knowledge about molecular interactions caused by radiation in extreme environments. This knowledge will enable development of waste management technologies, as well as ways to predict how wastes will behave decades from now.

WSU chemistry professor Aurora Clark is an expert in simulating complex chemical solutions like those found in Hanford. As deputy director of IDREAM, Dr. Clark will work with theorists at PNNL and other research institutions, including the University of Washington, to create realistic simulations of interactions that occur among chemical species in the highly radioactive waste environment.

The simulations will provide the roadmap for investigations by experimentalists like Sue Clark—work that will aid in the design of new waste collection, processing, and storage methods.

Building the workforce

In addition to addressing pressing issues surrounding radioactive waste management, IDREAM will provide invaluable graduate and postdoctoral opportunities for a new generation of scientists.

There is a near-critical shortage of highly trained chemists in the nation’s nuclear industry. WSU is home to one of the nation’s premier radiochemistry research programs. Its work with PNNL to advance nuclear science attracts grants to the region and helps train tomorrow’s radiochemists.