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Aervoe process could solidify nuclear waster

by Linda Hiller

Dave Williams, owner of Aervoe Pacific in Gardnerville, dropped a bomb while speaking to more than 130 people at a building industry Forecast 2000 the other day.

He said that sooner or later, nuclear waste from Washington state and other locales could be coming through the Carson Valley. Williams further suggested that businesses could look at Nevada’s relationship with the nuclear industry as an opportunity.

It’s not that Williams is hoping the Carson Valley will become Glow Valley – he’s just seeing the writing on the wall.

“Yucca Mountain is 100 percent signed, sealed and delivered, but no politician will admit it,” he said to a quiet room. “New technology will be changing the way (nuclear) waste is disposed of. It’s called ‘super rapid solidification,’ and Aervoe Pacific will be a part of the process.”

– Chemicals are chemicals. Aervoe Pacific manufactures industrial coatings and lubricants and has been in the Carson Valley 10 years. Nearly two years ago, Williams brought a special projects manager on board – a chemist with nuclear industry experience named Larry Rogers – to head up Aervoe Pacific’s foray into the world of anti-nuclear chemicals.

Rogers, 52, has a doctorate in nanostructured particles from MIT, and a vast experience in that field of chemistry.

– A little background. To understand Williams’ and Rogers’ point-of-view about Yucca Mountain and the urgency to deal with nuclear waste, you have to look outside the Carson Valley to the nuclear industry’s early days – the Manhattan Project.

During the first part of World War II, the Manhattan Project was formed, combining the finest scientific minds in the United States to quickly perfect a nuclear explosive before Hitler’s Germany did.

In less than three years, these scientists – including Robert Oppenheimer, Albert Einstein and Edward Teller – succeeded in making the first atomic bomb, which later ended the war after two of them were dropped over Japan, on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

There were three main sites involved in the Manhattan Project – “the trinity,” as Rogers calls them – Los Alamos, N. M.; Oak Ridge, Tenn.; and Hanford, Wash., – the most secret spot of the three.

At Hanford, plutonium was created from fissionable uranium in nuclear reactors. It is the only site in the United States where plutonium was made, Rogers said. The first atomic bomb was built there around 1945 and later shipped to Almagordo, N. M., and detonated.

To make a tiny amount of plutonium – the heaviest and deadliest substance known to man, Rogers said – cost billions of dollars and produced millions of gallons of high level nuclear sludge and hundreds of millions of gallons of low level waste, or “tritiated water.”

Although Hanford stopped producing plutonium 12 years ago, there are hundreds of millions of gallons of this deadly sludge buried in underground tanks there. Some of it – more than a million gallons, he said – is already leaking from many of the 177 tanks into the earth in finger-like plumes. And the path of these grayish sludge plumes? The nearby Columbia River.

“They’ve already found radioactive turtles in Portland, and they’re talking about diverting the Columbia River, or freezing the ground there to stop the plumes,” Rogers said. “And, China and Russia have their own Hanfords, so it’s not just here.”

– Closer to home. What does all this have to do with the Carson Valley? Everything, Rogers says.

If Yucca Mountain, 115 miles northwest of Las Vegas, does become the official national high level nuclear waste repository – an action that has been consistently fought in the nation’s capitol by all four Nevada delegates – the transporting of waste, from Hanford at least, will logically come via Highway 395, both Rogers and Williams speculate.

“It’s the most direct route between Hanford and Yucca Mountain,” Williams said. “Kind of adds new meaning to the word ‘bypass.'”

Claude Oliver, a Benton County, Wash., commissioner, who has been involved with Hanford’s saga since the 1980s, said he, too, thinks Yucca Mountain will be selected as the official national repository.

“It’s all politics,” he said. “Is Yucca Mountain the best site? Not necessarily, but it is politically. I don’t like a lot of high level waste condensed in any one area.”

Oliver said there are many techniques of dealing with both low and high level nuclear waste that are currently being studied and used worldwide.

“There are some good techniques to be used, from recycling to reducing,” he said. “Is everyone sticking their head in the sand? Yes.”

– Stopping the plumes. Over the years, scientists have sought a way to make this nuclear waste safe to transport and store. One process, the hot glass process, has been a “fiasco,” Rogers said.

For nearly a decade, he has worked with other nuclear experts to develop another process, now called super rapid solidification.

This process involves an anti-nuclear material that is mixed with the waste to change it by crystallization into an insoluble solid. Rogers has a “patent nondisclosure” on the material and the process.

It will be manufactured exclusively at Aervoe Pacific, he said, but will not involve bringing any nuclear materials to the Carson Valley.

“Our long-term goal is to bring this relatively inexpensive process to China, Pakistan, India and the former Soviet Union,” Rogers said. “Many of their dumps have been abandoned.”

– Nevada Test Site first. In January, Rogers participated in a federal laboratory consortium meeting in Las Vegas – putting together a team from the Nevada Test Site, Desert Research Institute, Univeristy of Nevada, Las Vegas and University of Nevada, Reno, the Department of Energy and Aervoe Pacific.

This meeting began the process of cleaning up what is estimated to be one trillion gallons of tritiated water (low level radioactive waste) from underground caverns – some more than one mile across – created by underground bomb tests done over the years at the Nevada Test Site, 65 miles northwest of Las Vegas.

Like Hanford, this site is yielding plumes of waste moving toward a body of water, the Colorado River, not to mention Las Vegas.

Starting in mid to late summer, the consortium will begin the process of super rapid solidification at the Nevada Test Site. After that, he said, if it is as successful as everyone involved thinks it will be, Hanford experts could potentially use it to stabilize that site.

The important thing, both Rogers and Oliver said, is to stop the politicking and think globally about this potential environmental disaster.

“Everybody screams about it being in their back yard,” Rogers said. “But the thing is, it is already in our back yard and we need to stop the politics and deal with this now.”