PNNL scientist advises Japan on nuclear cleanup

Annette Cary Herald Staff WriterJune 1, 2013 

Mark Triplett was not sure what to expect when he was picked for a new State Department program offering expertise to Japan on radioactive contamination cleanup.

The senior adviser at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory was picked for the program based on his broad expertise in cleanup at the Hanford nuclear reservation, including work related to soil, groundwater and leaking tank waste cleanup.

But the issues in Japan following the Fukushima nuclear disaster two years ago are very different from the contamination at Hanford from more than four decades of plutonium production for nuclear weapons.

At Hanford much of the contamination is below ground, the result of burying or storing waste underground and disposing of contaminated liquid in the soil.

In Japan, Triplett was asked to advise the Ministry of Environment on the surface contamination that spread outside the Tokyo Electric Co.'s nuclear plant at Fukushima.

"When we started, they said they wanted American experts to bring technology," Triplett said.

They were interested in how to clean up cesium in rice fields, forests and cities, including the ghost towns, from which about 100,000 people remain evacuated.

Work on Hanford issues may not have prepared him for those environments, but he has found two areas where Hanford and other U.S. experience may help.

Japan has done a good job looking at and adopting waste decontamination methods, he said.

"To us the problem is it just sits there," he said. "We drive past whole fields covered with bags."

In Fukushima city, where 300,000 people live about 40 miles from the reactors, 80 percent of residents bury in their own yards the contamination they've cleaned up from their property, he said.

When he brought a Ministry of Environment delegation led by two members of Parliament to Hanford, the visitors took a keen interest in Hanford's Environmental Restoration Disposal Facility -- a massive, lined landfill in central Hanford for low-level radioactive waste.

The Hanford landfill, which covers an area the size of 52 football fields, has a capacity of about 18 million tons with room for expansion.

Opening the landfill at Hanford has been the key to Hanford environmental cleanup of contaminated dirt, waste burial sites and unused buildings, they were told.

But Japan has obstacles, such as forests, groundwater closer to the surface and a wetter climate, that didn't have to be considered when the Hanford landfill was built.

Japan plans to establish a large, but still temporary, storage site to be used for up to 30 years, when it wants to have a permanent storage facility built, Triplett said.

But just as establishing central waste disposal sites, such as at Yucca Mountain, Nev., has been controversial in the United States, there also is opposition from potential neighbors of any permanent disposal area in Japan, Triplett said.

Triplett believes that the Department of Energy's experience in public involvement is the second area that may be useful to Japan.

When the Japanese delegation visited, he arranged meetings with officials from Hanford's regulators and DOE contractor Mission Support Alliance, who discussed how citizens here are involved in solving Hanford's problems.

Triplett, plus two other U.S. Embassy science fellows, Robert Sindelar of the Savannah River National Laboratory, and Sang Don Lee of the Environmental Protection Agency's Homeland Security Research Center, are providing detailed recommendations on how the United States is dealing with nuclear contamination issues.

They will cover not just waste storage and public involvement, but setting radiation protection standards, decontamination methods and environmental monitoring.

Triplett's impressed with what had been accomplished in Japan in the two years since the nuclear disaster.

"But they still lack the institutions we developed over 20 years," he said.

The United States also is learning from the Japanese experience, he said.

The work that Japan is doing now to clean up surface contamination is providing useful knowledge to the United States to prepare for possible terrorist activities, such as a "dirty" bomb set off to spread radioactive contamination, he said.

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