Innovate or die” is the mantra in high-tech markets such as computers, pharmaceuticals and wireless communications. These companies invest upwards of 10 percent of their sales into research so that they can continue to provide the new products that cost less and do more – everything we have come to expect.
When it comes to more commonplace tasks, such as keeping our homes clean, one might think that success depends more on elbow grease than innovation. Nothing could be further from the truth.
SCIENTIFIC DISCOVERIES in nanotechnology and biotechnology are leading the way to products such as windows that never need washing, stain-free fabrics and new antimicrobial treatments that improve food safety in our refrigerators. Again, the objective is to do more and cost less.
Here in the Central Savannah River Area, we are well aware that our nation is engaged in one of the most technically challenging and environmentally important activities we have
ever faced: reducing the risk posed by Cold War-legacy nuclear waste. Current estimates for the national program put the price tag at more than $300 billion, stretching at least 40 years into the future.
Each of us who lives near a legacy site wants to see progress accelerated, as do our federal and state governments. The sticking point is funding. The inherent scale and complexity of this challenge is pushing the limits of what can be done with currently available federal funding. In addition the expanding national debt and increasing pressure to reduce federal spending make it unlikely, if not impossible, to simply “dial up” the rate of progress through increased funding.
Innovation is the key. Working together at Savannah River Site, the Savannah River National Laboratory, the Department of Energy, state regulators and cleanup contractors have shown that application of innovative cleanup approaches can reduce cost, lower environmental risk and accelerate the schedule. The following are a few examples that help demonstrate how SRNL-led innovation is contributing to successful legacy waste cleanup at SRS:
We replaced the standard “pump and treat” approach to contaminated groundwater with an engineered system of groundwater flow and soil stabilization that has surpassed all regulatory goals, paid for itself in the first year of operation, and will save more than $400 million over the life of the project.
WE HAVE USED advanced modeling and new materials to help safely decommission two large reactors for about one-fourth the cost of traditional demolition and burial approaches, saving another $400 million, while greatly decreased worker and environmental exposure to contaminated materials.
We applied state-of-the-art chemical processing methods to improve the extraction of long-lived cesium isotopes from legacy waste, reducing the overall tank waste treatment by two full years (at $500 million per year operating cost).
Overall, the investment in new, innovative cleanup technologies at SRNL in just the past five years will save an estimated $2 billion in cost, yielding a nearly 10-to-one return on investment. More importantly, the dollars saved through innovation are being used to directly fund additional cleanup work, reducing the time to achieve our shared goal of reducing the overall environmental risk at SRS.
The successes at SRS are building an international reputation for our leadership in cleanup technologies, as demonstrated by Tokyo Electric Power Corp.’s decision to choose SRNL as its U.S. partner to address the Fukushima Daiichi Power Plant cleanup effort.
SRNL IS PROUD of the contributions we make to Savannah River Site. But, there is a catch. As overall pressure on the budget increases, it is common practice to disproportionately reduce investment in research and new ideas. In fact, we have seen the funding for innovative cleanup approaches reduced 40-fold, severely curtailing the pipeline of new ideas and threatening the continued operation of the Savannah River National Laboratory.
Innovation plays a critical
role in accelerating cleanup of legacy nuclear waste. This community needs to reinforce with the DOE and the federal government the importance of sustained, cutting-edge research at SRNL and other national laboratories to ensure that the next generation technologies needed to accelerate environmental cleanup will be available to provide the cost-effective and safe approaches needed to complete this important task.
(The writer is executive vice president of Savannah River Nuclear Solutions and director of the Savannah River National Laboratory.)