Stored plutonium found to pose major hazards The 26 metric tons of plutonium scraps and fragments and plutonium-containing solutions stored at U.S. nuclear weapons plants pose "significant hazards to work-ers, the public, and the environment, and little progress has been made to aggres-sively address the problem/' says a De-partment of Energy report.
At nearly all 13 sites where large quantities are found, plutonium presents a major risk to workers, the extensive survey concludes. And at several sites, it could cause problems for the public and environment in the event of explosions, fires, or other catastrophes.
Much of the plutonium is stored in containers designed to be temporary, which are now deteriorating. Some also is stranded as residues called holdups in ducts, piping, and glove boxes. Potential dangers also are posed by poor mainte-nance and obsolete design at some buildings where plutonium is kept.
Until the late 1980s, plutonium was manufactured and made into warheads at the 13 DOE sites. Plutonium produc-tion stopped abruptly at the end of the Cold War, and many production facili-ties are in an abandoned or poorly maintained condition.
For the survey, teams of experts visited the sites. They evaluated the conditions of plutonium storage and the institutional controls that protect workers, the public, and the environment. Citizens, workers, state and federal regulators, and repre-sentatives of public interest groups par-ticipated in the survey along with DOE experts and outside consultants.
The survey identifies 299 environmen-tal, safety, and health problems at the sites. The most severe problems are at Rocky Flats, Colo.; Savannah River, S.C.; Hanford, Wash.; and Los Alamos, N.M. The 6,000 or so pits (hollow metal-clad plutonium spheres) stored at the Pantex site near Amarillo, Tex., present some risks, but these are judged low com-pared with the risks posed by plutonium at most of the other 12 sites. The mass of the pitsa classified numberis not in-cluded in the 26-metric-tons figure.
Of the 26 metric tons, 13.0 are stored as metal, 8.7 are in scrap and residues, 3.3 are in oxide form, and 0.7 is dis-solved in solutions. The remainder is in other forms.
ACS dedicates renovated headquarters building
The ACS Board of Directors took a break from its meeting earlier this month to dedicate the society's reno-vated headquarters building in Wash-ington, D.C. At the ceremony in the still-unfinished lobby, board chair-man Paul H. L. Walter (from left) and Joan E. Shields, chairman of the Soci-ety Committee on Budget & Finance, show the new cornerstone, observed by executive director John K Crum and president Ned D. Heindel. The ceremony included display of a time capsule bearing samples of ACS pub-lications, informational items, and soft-warereflecting advances in many chemical fieldsto be inserted behind the cornerstone. Also displayed were the contents of a time capsule put into
the building when it was constructed in 1959. The 1959 capsule will be placed behind the new capsule. The $11 million revamping (including ren-ovation and relocation costs), which began last May, is more than two weeks ahead of schedule, Crum says, and ACS staff members will return from temporary quarters to the head-quarters building in late February and early March. Shields, who also chairs the ACS Board ad hoc Committee on Property Development, notes the com-mittee considered moving ACS head-quarters to the Virginia suburbs. But after studying the facts and figures, the decision was made to stay "at our prestigious 16th Street address/'
The solutionsusually nitric acid so-lutionspose the greatest hazards. The solutions are contained in polyethylene bottles, plastic-lined tanks, stainless steel tanks, storage drums, and process pip-ing. None of these is designed for long-term storage. Radiolysis and acid often embrittle the plastic containers and gas-kets, which can lead to rupture and leaks. In solution, alpha particles from plutonium break down the plastic con-tainers or water to generate hydrogen, which can cause fires and explosions. Plutonium also can precipitate from the solutions and reach a critical mass. This has already led to spontaneous fission and explosions.
The plutonium metal at most DOE sites is stored in containers that allow air and moisture to enter, resulting in oxida-tion. Many of the containers also include
a plastic bag. Hydrogen from radiolytic decay of plastic can form plutonium hy-dride, which catalyzes rapid formation of plutonium oxide. This has ruptured some containers because plutonium ox-ide has a much greater volume than plutonium.
Buildings 771 and 776 at Rocky Flats are considered the most dangerous. Building 771 has 1,350 packages of plu-tonium in contact with plastic. Its tanks and process piping are leaking plutoni-um nitrate solutions. Building 776 has more than 3,700 packages of plutonium in contact with plastic. Both facilities also have kilogram quantities of plutonium in ducts and glove boxes and have limit-ed maintenance of safety systems. Both sites were radioactively contaminated during major fires.
DOE will complete a plan for remediat-
DECEMBER 12,1994 C&EN 7
ACS dedicates renovated headquarters building