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May 20, 2002
Volume 80, Number 20
CENEAR 80 20 pp. 32-36
ISSN 0009-2347

The Hanford Connection

Some $110 million of PNNL's budget supports DOE and its contractors who are working to clean up the Hanford Site. The site contains some of the nation's worst radioactive and chemical contamination, notes John P. LaFemina, director of PNNL environmental programs.

PNNL's science and technology support for the cleanup is focused on four areas: some 50 million gal of chemical and radioactive waste contained in underground tanks, one-third of which are leaking; stored, spent radioactive reactor fuel; plutonium left in closed processing plants; and contaminated groundwater.

The science is interesting, LaFemina says, although the problems are immense. He notes, for example, "If you want to know what is in the tanks or the groundwater, just look at the periodic table."

LaFemina stresses that significant progress has been made to clean up the site and research has played a big part.

Along with providing R&D for the actual cleanup, LaFemina says, PNNL uses its scientific and technological expertise to help DOE and contractors determine what should be cleaned up, when it should be cleaned up, and how it can be cleaned up.

He estimates that about 17% of PNNL's scientific effort is directed to risk analysis to support cleanup decisions. The rest is in hard-core sciences.

"We need to know how to stage the cleanup and how to prioritize work to meet commitments and policy agreements," he says, adding that changes such as DOE's new accelerated cleanup plan will call for significant research modifications, including introduction of breakthrough technologies.

Hanford-related R&D activities appear sprinkled throughout the lab and the site, both fieldwork conducted at Hanford and R&D in PNNL's labs.

Cleanup science also takes some unexpected twists and leads to some unplanned results, LaFemina notes.

Lab scientists discovered an efficient means to retrieve the medical isotope yttrium-90 from purified strontium-90 first obtained from tank waste, LaFemina says. The therapeutic isotope has applications for treatment of many forms of cancer, and the program grew to the point that is now commercialized.

PNNL scientist Mary S. Lipton is using the lab's proteomics facilities to study the microorganism Deinococcus radiondurans, which has the ability to resist the lethal effects of radiation.

So far, PNNL has characterized about 80% of the proteome with the goal of understanding what makes D. radiondurans radiation resistant.

Lipton hopes to couple this research with that of another potentially valuable microbe, Shewanella oneidensis MR-1, which is capable of converting uranium in contaminated groundwater to a form that is insoluble in water. Although S. oneidensis can help precipitate radioactive materials out of groundwater and halt their spread, the microbe is highly sensitive to radiation.

Combining the attributes of these two microbes could have a significant impact on one of the biggest problems facing Hanford: groundwater contamination from the leaking underground tanks.

Groundwater contamination is slowly flowing to the Columbia River and is a top cleanup priority, LaFemina says. However, it is one of many problems in a cleanup that is expected to last decades and cost billions of dollars.

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Chemical & Engineering News
Copyright © 2002 American Chemical Society

Cover Story
Creative chemistry, biology, plus powerful instruments and computers propel Pacific Northwest National Laboratory into proteomics era

Chemistry And Biosciences Are Priorities At PNNL

The Hanford Connection

Biodetection Enabling Analyte Delivery System

Solid Oxide Fuel Cells

Spiders, Fireflies, And Microbes

The Virtual Lung

Related Stories

Chemist selected to direct DOE Lab
[C&EN, Mar. 6, 2000]

Modeling Gets Big Boosts
[C&EN, Apr. 9, 2002]

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