Dealing with nuclear waste solved in 1954

April 4, 2012 

A Hanford scientist explains how the problem of radioactive waste disposal would be solved in 1954, "The solutions to its problems were sought and found before any significant problems were caused to the public."

How Hanford solves waste disposal problem told by Richland scientist

By the Tri-City Herald staff
Published on March 22, 1954

The atomic industry solves its waste disposal problems before they arise, Hanford's James M. Smith explained to the sixth annual Pacific Northwest Industrial Waste conference at the University of Washington.

"It is probable that no new industry has given such serious consideration to its waste disposal problems in the interest of public welfare than has the atomic industry," stated Smith, who is manager of radiological engineering at Hanford.

"The solutions to its problems were sought and found before any significant problems were caused to the public."

Smith explained that when considering radioactive wastes one must realize that a new aspect of the waste disposal problem has entered the community picture. Although the radiation aspect is new, it should not be considered unique or mysterious, since any new industry has problems on a comparable scale.

The disposal of these wastes present three types of problems primarily Smith said. They are: (1) treatment and release of ventilation air which has become contaminated with radioactive gases or dusts; (2) processing and release to the ground, sewage system or directly to a waterway of liquids containing contamination in solution or suspension; and (3) disposal of radioactive solids.

The nature of the hazard that may result from a particular waste disposal practice must be considered from all angles. Radioactive materials may enter the body through inhalation or digestion. The food chain relationship involving man may require that controls be extended to cover the exposure of aquatic life, livestock and crops.

With respect to the disposal of radioactive waste, two general approaches are feasible: (1) concentrate and contain the radioactive material, or (2) dilute and disperse it.

Estimates of safe limits may also be obtained from known x-ray or radium damage experience or with background concentrations if radioisotopes which occur naturally in our bodies, in the air we breathe and in the water and food we consume.

In gaseous radioactive disposal, though the air could be quite clean by ordinary considerations of weight and concentration of material, from a radiation standpoint, concentrations of significance may still exist.

In the liquid disposal field also, the quantity of radioactive material of significance from the radiation hazard viewpoint, is very small by ordinary considerations of liquid contaminants. For example, one part of strontium-90 (one of the more dangerous of the "fission" products") to 20 quadrillion parts of water by weight is equal to the permissible limit for drinking water.

Many types of disposal problems -- dusts, liquids and solids -- are met during the processing of uranium ore from mine to nuclear fuel element.

The fission process which changes the uranium fuel elements into plutonium (a key ingredient in the atomic bomb) creates vast quantities of heat. The coolant flow of great quantities of water through a Hanford reactor presents a waste disposal problem on a huge scale.

The Columbia River water downstream is used for community and irrigation purposes and also abounds in marine life. However, a continuous monitoring program since the start of the operation at Hanford has shown that river conditions have always remained safe.

Gaseous wastes get special treatment. Methods include the use of "scrubbers" and utilization of high-efficiency filters before discharge through tall stacks into the atmosphere for further dispersion.

Encasement in concrete, followed by ground or sea burial, is practically utilized for solid radioactive waste materials.

Regardless of methods used, though, adequate planning, monitoring and control of all aspects is a prime requisite of the atomic plant.

The utility of radioisotopes of current interest to industry arises from two general fields of application, as tracers and as radiation sources. The amounts involved have been relatively small so the resultant waste disposal problems have been limited. Development in this field will lead to more extensive use in the process control, augmenting and disposal problems.

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