Storing Plutonium Will Be A Problem For At Least Another Century

by Daniel Russ on July 14, 2010

Weapons Grade Plutonium

WASHINGTON — The amount of plutonium buried at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington State is nearly three times what the federal government previously reported, a new analysis indicates, suggesting that a cleanup to protect future generations will be far more challenging than planners had assumed.

Plutonium waste is much more prevalent around nuclear weapons sites nationwide than the Energy Department’s official accounting indicates, said Robert Alvarez, a former department official who in recent months reanalyzed studies conducted by the department in the last 15 years for Hanford; the Idaho National Engineering Laboratory; the Savannah River Site, near Aiken, S.C.; and elsewhere.

But the problem is most severe at Hanford, a 560-square-mile tract in south-central Washington that was taken over by the federal government as part of the Manhattan Project. By the time production stopped in the 1980s, Hanford had made most of the nation’s plutonium.

The plutonium does not pose a major radiation hazard now, largely because it is under “institutional controls” like guards, weapons and gates. But government scientists say that even in minute particles, plutonium can cause cancer, and because it takes 24,000 years to lose half its radioactivity, it is certain to last longer than the controls.

The fear is that in a few hundred years, the plutonium could reach an underground area called the saturated zone, where water flows, and from there enter the Columbia River. Because the area is now arid, contaminants move extremely slowly, but over the millennia the climate is expected to change, experts say.

Source: NYT

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