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U.S. Pursues Coating to Hold Plutonium

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

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The U.S. Department of Energy is developing a radiation-shielding thin-film polymer that would help contain radioactive waste during a multiyear nuclear-plant decontamination project.

The coating could extend the life of the so-called RadBags that will be used to contain plutonium waste from the Savannah River Site (SRS) during shipping for disposal, according to DOE.

Photos: DOE

Built in the early 1950s at President Harry S Truman's invitation to DuPont, the Savannah River Plant produced materials for nuclear weapons. DuPont pulled out of the operation in 1987. In 1989, the facility was added to the Superfund National Priority List; "Site" replaced "Plant" in the name.

The technology is being developed by DOE's Savannah River National Laboratory, with funding by the Office of Site Restoration within the agency's Office of Environmental Management. A University of Kentucky team led by Dr. John Anthony is also collaborating in the effort.

Savannah River

The Savannah River Site is a 310-square-mile DOE facility in South Carolina, near Aiken, SC, and Augusta, GA. The complex was built during the early 1950s to produce tritium, plutonium and other basic materials used in the fabrication of nuclear weapons.

The complex includes five reactors and number of support facilities, including two chemical separation plants, a heavy water extraction plant, a nuclear fuel and target fabrication facility, a tritium extraction facility, and waste management facilities.

SRS History SRS History

The Plutonium Fuel Fabrication Facility (left) went online at the Savannah River Plant in 1977. In the 1990s (right), production of nuclear weapons at SRS stopped with the end of the Cold War.

SRS plans to decontaminate the F Area Building 235-F Plutonium Fuel Form Facility, which was used primarily for plutonium and neptunium component production processing until 1983. The task will include removing Plutonium-238 from the site in plastic containment bags within metal containers.

A decay product of spent reactor nuclear fuel, Plutonium-238 is a radioactive isotope with a half-life of about 88 years.

Coated RadBags

Coating the waste containment bags would "alleviate the risk of waste-container degradation, thereby improving worker safety," DOE said in a research announcement.

The thin-film coating efficiently absorbs alpha radiation generated by Plutonium-238, "preventing high-energy alpha particles from exiting the interior of the containers," DOE said.

The coating also could function as a radiation sensor by changing color when exposed to a sufficient amount of the alpha-particle emitters, the agency reported.

SRS Schematic

DOE says the coating could extend the life of plutonium disposal RadBags.

“A radiation-shielding, organic-thin-film-coated RadBag provides the direct benefit of more stability in the storage, transport, and disposal of alpha-producing waste material," said Dr. Aaron L. Washington II, the laboratory’s senior scientist and lead investigator for the EM research.

"This technology addresses the focus on alternative materials in radiation shielding and detection capabilities."

If successful, the coating "would resolve a complex technical challenge in the deactivation and decommissioning of inactive plutonium processing facilities requiring waste containers resistant to radiation degradation," according to DOE.


Tagged categories: DuPont; Hazardous waste; Nuclear Power Plants; Research; U.S. Department of Energy

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