Old Roman glass may be key to safely storing nuclear waste

Tri-City HeraldAugust 12, 2011 

A shipwreck 1,800 years ago in the Adriatic Sea might give scientists at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory better information about how well modern glass might work to contain radioactive waste.

The Department of Energy is building a $12.2 billion vitrification plant at the Hanford nuclear reservation to glassify radioactive waste before it is buried deep in the ground.

The glass, formed from the waste and glass-forming materials, is planned to keep the radioactive waste secure for thousands of years. But until recently, the longest test on a piece of man-made glass holding simulated radioactive waste has been about 25 years.

Thanks to the shipwreck "we can use data points Romans thoughtfully started for us hundreds of years ago," said Joseph Ryan, a senior scientist at the Department of Energy national laboratory in Richland.

He and scientist Denis Strachan, a laboratory fellow, are taking an atom-by-atom look at ancient glass to see how the glass has held up to corrosion.

Thursday, the two held up a chunk of green glass, marbled with iridescent streaks, that once was the handle of a jar.

It was among the glass that archaeologists believe was carried on the merchant ship Iulia Felix 1,800 years ago. The ship, which measured about 50 feet long, sank six miles off the coast of Grado, scattering glass at the bottom of the Adriatic Sea.

The Iulia Felix is believed to have carried containers of oils and spices, but also a barrel of glass pieces that may have been bound for the port of Aquileia, a center of Roman glass making. The glass pieces would have been recycled there.

Strachan and Ryan also have obtained glass from an archaeological dig at the ancient ruins of Aquileia. The glass is not as well dated, but also could be about 1,800 years old.

The most likely way for modern glass incorporating radioactive waste to corrode and dissolve after it is buried, contaminating the environment, is by exposure to water.

Read the complete story at the tri-cityherald.com

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