Imagine a substance that could gobble up deadly nuclear waste like so many peanuts. That’s the goal of a researcher and his team at Texas A&M University at Galveston, who have been awarded $1.2 million in grants from the Department of Energy (DOE’s Office of Science) to see if it can happen.
Peter Santschi, Regents Professor of Marine Sciences at Galveston who also serves as an oceanography professor on the College Station campus, will try to determine what will happen when radioactive waste elements encounter more vegetated areas where natural organic matter is more abundant. To find out how some of these elements behave under these circumstances will be crucial in efforts to protect the public and ecosystems from these potentially toxic substances.
Nuclear waste has been a government headache for the past 50 years, says Santschi. The problem is one of time — and nuclear waste has plenty of it. Some types of radioactive waste are capable of harmful effects to humans for up to 100,000 years and even in small amounts, some of the less potent nuclear waste material can be deadly for centuries.
There’s a lot of nuclear waste out there: currently, 104 nuclear power plants in the U.S. are supplying electricity to millions of people, in addition to waste from disarmed nuclear weapons and radioactive materials from medical centers.
“Nuclear waste is a big problem that is not going away any time soon,” explains Santschi.
“What we will try to do is use natural organic matter and see how it is binding these elements and transported chemically. Plutonium and iodine are especially difficult because when natural organic matter is present, they can move away from where they were placed in the environment. To keep them where they are placed is going to be a big challenge.”
Santschi has obtained waste-contaminated samples from nuclear sites in Colorado, South Carolina, Washington, and soon from Nevada and possibly other locations around the world, such as the Japanese Fukushima Complex, for his work.
Disposal of nuclear waste has essentially reached a critical point in the U.S., especially in recent months, he adds.
In the 1980s during the Reagan administration, the government approved policies for nuclear waste disposal and a site was selected and called the Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository, a huge underground storage facility about 90 miles from Las Vegas that would store about 77,000 tons of high-level nuclear waste.
Leaders of the project were taking their cue from a 1957 recommendation by the National Academy of Sciences that found the best way to dispose of nuclear waste was to place it inside rocks deep underground. The Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 established a program that put the DOE in charge of finding, building and operating an underground waste repository.
It was going to be a disposal area for much of the country’s nuclear waste, but last spring the government terminated the program after 20 years and $9 billion in costs. That leaves the U.S. without any long-term storage site for high-level radioactive waste, much of which is currently stored onsite at various nuclear facilities around the country.
“We hope to find ways to better understand when radioactive elements become mobile in the environment, knowledge that will help to better store and immobilize radioactive waste elements at the designated sites,” Santschi says. “Is it possible and how long will this take? Those are two questions we need to find out, but we are optimistic it can happen. It is going to involve a lot of cross-disciplinary work on several levels, combining techniques and approaches common in environmental radiochemistry, organic geochemistry and microbiology.
“Waste escaping into wetlands areas has already occurred at several locations,” he adds. “This is especially troubling because if it can leak into wetlands, it can further spread into creeks and ponds and river systems. Much of our focus will be on interactions between radioactive materials and water and soil within natural biological cycles.”