Roman artifact helps nuclear storage research

Aug 17, 2011

Scientists are experimenting with 1,800-year-old glass to better understand how nuclear waste storage will hold up for millennia to come.

Long ago a ship set sail in the Adriatic sea, possibly heading toward the ancient seaport of Aquileia. But it never made it. For 1,800 years the ship’s wreckage sat on the sea floor, exposed to the elements.

Denis Strachan, a Pacific Northwest National Laboratory fellow, traveled to Italy last summer in search of the corroded glass to study how modern-day glass will hold up when storing nuclear waste. As a fan cools his lab at in Richland, Wash., he sounds almost as excited about the history as the science.

“These are experiments done by our ancient fathers for us – free.”

Modern scientists wanted to find out:

  • How much corrosion happened over the last 1,800 years
  • How water reacted with the glass
  • What the ancient glass turned into

Senior scientist Joseph Ryan holds up a blue piece of glass found at the bottom of the sea. Most likely it’s a part of a goblet and its handle. The corrosion looks iridescent, and there’s not much of it.

“You can still see on this material, all of the neat little ridges and decorations that are present on this glass, and its been buried for 1,800 years in just sea water – not really the world’s best repository situation.”

Ryan says they can use the chemistry behind the unintentionally durable Roman glass to make sure what’s used to hold nuclear waste will not fail.

The vitrification solution

While molten glass pours in the background, Strachan explains one way to store nuclear waste is by turning it into glass through a process called vitrification. Once scientists understand the chemistry of the ancient artifacts, they can put that data into models that will predict how vitrification will hold up over millennia.

“By understanding the chemistry, and understanding the science associated with that, you’re better able then to do the calculation and assure the public.”

The researchers say they have a lot to learn from these artifacts. But early results show the vitrified waste will hold up for many thousands of years.