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Special torch may cleanse nuclear waste

February 19, 1996
Web posted at: 6:00 p.m. EST

From Correspondent Dick Wilson

STARKVILLE, Mississippi (CNN) -- After years of delays, the Department of Energy expects to soon begin a small-scale cleanup of some of the nation's nuclear fuel facilities.

The environmental cleanup costs are enormous, but so are the potential consequences of failure.

Scientists at Mississippi State University are testing one method that could make the cleanup of low-level radioactive waste move much more quickly.


The researchers, led by Dr. Steve Sheperd, use what's called a plasma torch, an electric-arc furnace that heats contaminated soil at 15,000 degrees Fahrenheit -- hotter than the surface of the sun.

Currently, Shepherd and his research crew use simulated hazardous materials in their plasma torch tests. The plasma torch, according to the researchers, liquefies contaminated soil and breaks down dangerous compounds to safer, basic elements. The treated product is encased in glass, in an existing process called vitrification.

University researchers are working under a $25 million grant from the Energy Department, which controls the nation's nuclear waste sites. The scientists also are working with personnel at the Savannah River nuclear plant in South Carolina, and at Oak Ridge, Tennessee.

At those plants, there are 70,000 barrels of low-level radioactive waste that could rust and contaminate the water, Sheperd said. And so researchers are trying to "remediate that" by reducing it to "about 10,000 barrels in equivalent volumes of glass."

The glass volume, Sheperd said, will last safely for at least 10,000 years. To analyze their results, researchers use a special laser to identify the compounds in the treated waste.


"When we vaporize that material, the intensity tells us how much and the wavelengths tell us what it is," Sheperd said.

So far, the federal government has done little to remediate millions of barrels of existing low-level radioactive waste using the vitrification process. But, Sheperd says the process could move quickly once the federal agency backs the process completely.

Even some leading critics of the nuclear industry agree the plasma torch holds promise over other cleanup methods. (774K QuickTime Movie) And that pleases Shepherd.

The plasma torch is politically correct. It will do everything at an intense level and it will break everything down. And you can actually recombine it -- control it," he said.

Sheperd says a good percentage of low-level radioactive waste could be cleaned up using vitrification within three or four years.



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