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New analysis triples plutonium waste figures

 Posted by on July 13, 2010
Jul 132010

From Green Right Now Reports

Dealing with nuclear waste may be even more of a challenge than previously believed. According to a former Energy Department official, the amount of plutonium buried at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington State is nearly three times what the federal government previously acknowledged.

Robert Alvarez reanalyzed studies conducted by the Energy Department over the last 15 years for Hanford, the Idaho National Engineering Laboratory, and the Savannah River Site near Aiken, S.C., among others. Plutonium waste is much more prevalent around nuclear weapons sites nationwide than the Energy Department’s official accounting indicates, he concludes, 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.

Workers check spent fuel shipment for radiation before it leaves the K-East Basin annex at the Hanford nuclear facility

Alvarez says the plutonium does not pose a major radiation hazard now, largely because it is under “institutional controls” including guards, weapons and gates. Because plutonium takes 24,000 years to lose half its radioactivity, the danger is almost certain to outlast existing methods of control.

So far, the cleanup, which began in the 1990s, has involved moving some contaminated material near the banks of the Columbia River to drier locations. The effort has included building a factory that would take the most highly radioactive liquids and sludges from decaying storage tanks and solidify them in glass.

In 1996, the department released an official inventory of plutonium production and disposal. But Mr. Alvarez analyzed later Energy Department reports and concluded that there was substantially more plutonium in waste tanks and in the environment. The biggest issue is the amount of plutonium that has leaked from tanks, was intentionally dumped in the dirt, or was pumped into the ground.

Mr. Alvarez’s report has been accepted for publication later this year by Science and Global Security, a peer-reviewed journal published by Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.