Imperial College London

Imperial professor to advise $300B U.S. nuclear weapons clean-up programme

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radioactive warning

Professor Bill Lee has been selected to advise the U.S. Department of Energy on their $300 billion nuclear weapons clean-up programme.

Professor Lee, Co-Director of the Institute for Security Science and Technology, is one of only two non-American scientists invited to join the advisory committee, which will evaluate the technology used in the clean-up.

Duncan Swinscow-Hall caught up with Professor Lee to find out more.

Hi Bill, can you tell me more about the clean-up programme?

The U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Environmental Management is dealing with the environmental legacy of their nuclear weapons programmes, which started with the Manhattan Project during WWII.

The scale of the clean-up programme is enormous and covers many sites, including the one at Nevada where nuclear weapons were tested underground in the 1950’s and 60’s. It will cost a total of $300 billion U.S. dollars, and take around 50 years to complete.

What is your role?

I’ve been selected to join 11 other experts on the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine Committee. Over the next year, I’ll make six trips to the U.S.A. as part of the Committee, to visit sites, meet with stakeholders and prepare a report for presentation to Congress in early 2019.

We will review the U.S. Department of Energy’s technology development efforts, as well as the processes by which technologies are identified and selected for development. We will also assess technologies and/or alternative approaches that could significantly improve the program, by reducing long-term costs, accelerating schedules, and mitigating uncertainties, vulnerabilities and risks.

What is your expertise related to this area, and how does this fit with the Committee?

My expertise is in the development of ceramic, glass and cement wasteforms - a temporary storage for radioactive wastes before transport and final disposal. Some of my research group are currently developing wasteforms from the clean-up programme at Fukushima.

I also previously co-edited a book which looks into the nuclear waste situation in multiple countries, including a section on waste from nuclear weapons programmes, and have acted as special advisor to the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee on the UK’s Nuclear R&D programme.

The U.S. Committee is well-rounded, with experts in law and regulations, project management, geoscience, radiation safety and health physics, waste characterisation, separations and engineering, and systems analysis.  

What are the technical challenges in dealing with nuclear waste?

There are many steps in managing radioactive wastes, including characterisation and separation of the wastes, waste treatment and packaging in a stable solid wasteform. These challenges have largely been solved for controlled wastes, produced during the nuclear fuel cycle in generating electricity.

Uncontrolled wastes are much more problematic however. These arise when unexpected events occur, e.g. the Chernobyl and Fukushima accidents, or where sufficient care was not taken by today’s standards. For example, at Hanford, one of two sites where the U.S. stores its military (defense) wastes, poorly characterised, highly radioactive sludges were stored in massive steel tanks that eventually leaked.

These wastes are often present in the environment, and are harder to find, characterise and separate. The main concern is to keep them away from human habitation and, in particular, out of the water table.

How much of an issue is nuclear waste in different countries?

Countries with large historical nuclear programmes such as the U.S.A., U.K., Russia, France and Japan have the most waste. However, many countries use medical radioisotopes in their hospitals and so have waste to dispose of.   


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Max Swinscow-Hall

Max Swinscow-Hall
Institute for Security Science & Technology

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