Wednesday, October 14, 1998
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DOE awards funding to facilitate clean-up


W hen you have decades-old tanks filled with radioactive ooze and need to pump it out quickly, who you gonna call?

Scientists at Princeton and 23 other universities around the nation, if you’re the U.S. Department of Energy.

The DOE recently announced more than $30 million in grants to research ways of cleaning up environmental hazards left over from years of nuclear weapons production. Some date back to the early days of the Cold War.

At the University, Dan Dabbs, a chemical engineering research staff member, is receiving $70,000 per year for the next three years to investigate how to keep aluminum dissolved in solution so that when the “witch’s brew” of radioactive waste is pumped out of tanks at contaminated sites, solid metal does not clog the transfer.

‘Basic part of the equation’

Jeff Sherwood ’78, an Energy Department spokesman, said the research conducted at the University could prove to be important, even though it’s only a small piece of the overall effort.

“We have tanks bubbling with millions of gallons of high-level waste,” Sherwood said. “It’s not like you can just cut them up and get at them” if a block forms during pumping.

“We’re looking at a very basic part of the equation,” said Dabbs, who is collaborating in the research with chemical engineering professor Ilhan Aksay, as well as scientists at the Energy Department’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Washington and Savannah River Technology Center in South Carolina.

Their particular project costs $1.1 million, with the bulk of the funding going to the two laboratories. The labs are located near sites where the nuclear waste is currently being stored and where fears of groundwater contamination and other environmental dangers are rising.

“They’re facing a very serious clean-up issue at this point,” Dabbs said.

Cold War legacy

The DOE estimates that the final cost of the clean-up will be $147 billion between 1997 and 2070. A major goal of that initiative, Dabbs said, is to convert the mostly liquid waste to glass or ceramics, which are easier to transport and less volatile.

Urgent research

At a site in Hanford, Wash., near the Pacific Northwest Laboratory, there are about 180 tanks that need to be pumped out, Dabbs said.

He added that some of them are from the original Manhattan Project, which resulted in the first atomic bomb.

The exact contents of the tanks are unknown. Additionally, scientists are unsure of the stability of the tank walls. These two factors make the research even more urgent, Sherwood said.

In announcing the grants, Undersecretary of Energy Ernest Moniz stressed the difficulty presented by sites like Hanford.

“The environmental contamination from Cold War nuclear weapons production requires scientific breakthroughs to make its clean-up feasible and cost-effective,” Moniz said in a statement released Oct. 2.

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