A Roman Shipwreck and Safe Nuclear Storage

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Vitrification technology -- immobilizing material in glass Image courtesy of PNNL

Vitrification technology -- immobilizing material in glass -- is a practical and effective option for treating radioactive and hazardous chemical wastes.

As occasionally happens, this science experiment started by accident, when the Roman merchant ship the Iulia Felix sank into the Adriatic Sea off the coast of the town of Grabo roughly 1,800 years ago, dragging with it a barrel of glass pieces. Flash forward from Pax Romana to Pax Americana, to just last summer when the Energy Department's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) fellow Denis Strachan traveled to Italy and picked up some of those glass pieces long stored on the sea floor.

Researchers at PNNL are using the ancient glass to study a thoroughly modern problem: How to safely store radioactive waste for millennia into the future. One way to safely store nuclear waste is to vitrify it – the immobilization of a material in glass – and then bury it. Because the hazardous components of the waste are bonded within the glass structure, vitrification produces very durable waste forms that are environmentally stable for thousands of years. The Department is currently building a plant for precisely that purpose in Hanford, Washington (roughly 25 miles from Richland, where PNNL is located).

The ancient Roman glass offers scientists a great new opportunity to further study how modern glass – as well as vitrified nuclear waste – stands the test of time for millennia to come. Specifically, Drs. Ryan and Strachan are using a sophisticated probe at PNNL's Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory (EMSL) to take an atom-by-atom, and layer-by-layer look at the glass, and examine how it has changed over the centuries. They'll use that information to build better computer models of how the modern glass may hold up centuries from now. The data may also suggest ways to create even stronger glasses.

Those materials in turn could open new possibilities and new technologies; innovations that keep us safer and breakthroughs that make us stronger. It's a better, brighter future, one that scientists have been waiting for... for at least 1,800 years.

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The research is supported by Energy Department's Office of Nuclear Energy and Office of Environmental Management. EMSL is supported by the Energy Department's Office of Science.

For more information about PNNL, go to: http://www.pnnl.gov/. And for more information on Energy Department's Office of Science, please go to: http://science.energy.gov/.

Charles Rousseaux is a Senior Writer in the Office of Science.