Multimillion dollar grant to support nuclear waste cleanup - NBC Right Now/KNDO/KNDU Tri-Cities, Yakima, WA |

Multimillion dollar grant to support nuclear waste cleanup

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PULLMAN, WA - Washington State University and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory researchers have received a four-year, multimillion dollar grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to study the chemical reactions that cause nuclear waste to change over time.

The grant establishes the IDREAM center, one of four newly minted DOE Energy Frontier Research Centers intended to play a major role in expediting the cleanup of Hanford and other sites contaminated by decades of nuclear weapons production.

“This is a tremendous opportunity to address a technical area of societal importance while also strengthening the partnership between PNNL and WSU through joint faculty appointments, postdoctoral associate mentoring and graduate education,” said Sue Clark, a Battelle fellow at PNNL and a WSU regents professor of chemistry. She will serve as director of IDREAM (Interfacial Dynamics in Radioactive Environments and Materials).

A key goal for the center is understanding how radiation will affect the composition of nuclear waste in the years to come.

Simulations, analyses of how waste changes

“It is going to take 40 or 50 years before we are able to process the waste being stored at sites like Hanford,” said Aurora Clark, a WSU associate professor of chemistry and deputy director of the new center. “Because the waste is highly radioactive, it will evolve over that time and we must predict these changes in advance to design effective methods for remediation and safe disposal.”

Aurora Clark is an expert in simulating highly radioactive systems. She will work with theorists at PNNL and other research institutions as far away as Georgia Technical University in Atlanta to create realistic simulations of the complex interactions that occur between materials in radioactive waste.

The simulations will provide the roadmap for experimentalists at the center like Sue Clark to safely perform physical analyses on nuclear waste samples that will aid in the design of new collection, processing and storage methods.

“IDREAM puts WSU in a unique position in partnership PNNL that will advance cutting edge nuclear science, attract new grants and help train a new generation of radiochemists,” Aurora Clark said. “This is a show-stopping opportunity that brings us to the forefront of a national effort to put the nuclear remediation chapter of U.S. history to a close.”

A new generation of radiochemists

Radiochemistry is the branch of chemistry concerned with the study of radioactive substances. With the number of highly trained chemists in the nation’s nuclear industry nearing a critical shortage, IDREAM will provide invaluable graduate and postdoctoral opportunities for a new generation of scientists trained at WSU, Aurora Clark said.

WSU has one of the nation’s premiere radiochemistry research groups. It awards degrees to half of the nation’s graduates earning doctoral degrees in radiochemistry, and IDREAM coordinators expect that number to double in the years to come.