NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

A Low Technology To Clean Up Nuclear Waste

February 24, 2000

You won't believe what they're about to use to absorb nuclear waste: cat litter. Nearly 1,000 scientists and engineers have spent 18 years and $1.5 billion so far trying to clean up a polluted site in upper New York state, using high-tech custom-designed robots and remote-controlled ovens.

Now they are turning to zeolite, a family of 48 minerals which absorbs odors and moistures -- and which is the main ingredient in cat litter.

  • The project at West Valley, N.Y., involves digging a deep trench and burying a wall of zeolite to sop up radioactive material tainting the ground water and seeping toward a stream that feeds Lake Erie.
  • One of the most abundant minerals in zeolite is clinoptilolite -- which has a strong affinity for strontium 90, the radioactive isotope that tainted ground water beneath a long-mothballed recycling plant for nuclear fuel rods.
  • While it is still too early to guarantee the test will succeed, if all goes as planned the 26-foot-deep wall will act like a giant molecular sieve -- letting water flow but capturing any strontium 90 molecules.
  • Federal officials are watching the project closely and might apply it to help restore water quality at many other nuclear waste sites.

Those involved say the results should be evident by spring. The total cost of the project is estimated to be less than $1.5 million -- far less than it would cost to pump and treat the water year after year.

Source: Andrew C. Revkin, "It Works for Cats, and Maybe for Nuclear Waste," New York Times, February 24, 2000.


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