Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland has been named as a national center for research that could help speed cleanup of waste held in underground tanks at Hanford and other Department of Energy cleanup sites.
It is one of four new Energy Frontier Research Centers named by the DOE Office of Science to better understand the chemistry of radioactive waste.
The three other centers, all selected in a competition, are Florida State University, Ohio State University and the University of South Carolina.
The DOE Office of Science plans to award up to $40 million for the research.
“We defined the science questions that need to be answered first and then brought the right people together who can help answer those questions, so it really is a dream team,” Sue Clark, who will lead the PNNL center, said in a statement. She is a Battelle fellow at PNNL and a regents professor of chemistry at Washington State University Pullman.
PNNL researchers will be working with scientists at Washington State University, University of Washington, Georgia Institute of Technology, University of Notre Dame, City College of New York and Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee.
Together they have expertise in chemistry, chemical engineering, materials science, microscopy and computational modeling as the IDREAM team, short for Interfacial Dynamics in Radioactive Environments and Materials.
If we can understand that aging process, we can possibly reduce the time and expense of characterizing the waste and accelerate its processing for disposal.
Sue Clark, Battelle fellow at PNNL
They will be researching the impact of the high levels of radiation in the mix of constituents in waste tanks and how they age.
“If we can understand that aging process, we can possibly reduce the time and expense of characterizing the waste and accelerate its processing for disposal,” Sue Clark said.
Hanford has 56 million gallons of radioactive waste stored in underground tanks since as early as World War II. The waste was produced through the Cold War as fuel irradiated at Hanford reactors was chemically processed to remove plutonium for the nation’s nuclear weapons program.
The waste includes a complex mixture of hazardous and radioactive chemicals in the form of salt and sludge. Their chemistry is dominated by interactions at solid-liquid interfaces that are poorly understood, according to PNNL.
Better understanding the processes at interfaces in radioactive environments could support innovation in the processing of the materials for disposal, according to PNNL.
All the waste stored in Hanford tanks may not be processed for disposal for another 50 years.
IDREAM puts WSU in a unique position in partnership (with) PNNL that will advance cutting edge nuclear science, attract new grants and help train a new generation of radiochemists.
urora Clark, WSU associate professor of chemistry
Aurora Clark, a WSU associate professor and deputy director of the new center, said that “because the waste is highly radioactive, it will evolve over that time and we must predict these changes in advance to design effective methods for remediation and safe disposal.”
Aurora Clark will be working with theorists at PNNL and other team members to create realistic simulations of the interactions among materials in nuclear waste. The simulations will provide the road map for researchers to perform analyses on waste samples as possible new designs to collect, process and store the waste are considered, according to WSU.
“I’m glad to see the Department of Energy funding innovative, new research at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory on this pressing national issue,” Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., the ranking member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said in a statement.
Sue Clark also plans to use the new center to help train the next generation of scientists to tackle radiochemistry issues.
The number of highly trained chemists in the nation’s nuclear industry is nearing a critical shortage, according to WSU.
IDREAM will provide research opportunities for graduate and postdoctoral students at WSU, which already awards half the nation’s doctoral degrees in radiochemistry. IDREAM coordinators expect the number of radiochemistry doctorate degrees to double in the coming years.
IDREAM is the second Energy Frontier Research Center to be led by PNNL. The Center for Molecular Electrocatalysis was established at PNNL in 2009 to study catalysis for solar energy and fuel cells.
Since DOE began creating Energy Frontier Research Centers in 2009, the centers have produced more than 7,500 scientific reports that have been peer reviewed and published.