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University Research Alliance Accomplishments

Electronic Resource Library

A wealth of information about plutonium exists, but much of it is fragmented, widely dispersed, or contained in obscure government reports. Because of its importance to U.S. national security, this information needed to be collected and made accessible to scientists and the public.

URA® established a centralized, easily accessed national library of government documents, scientific journals, and scientific and technical reports that pertain to plutonium. This electronic library was accessible to people throughout the world via the Internet.

Russian Interactions

The success of U.S. efforts to minimize proliferation threats depends on a parallel effort in Russia; Russian progress depends on political agreements which cannot progress without the technical means to safely and permanently dispose of surplus plutonium.

URA® helped advance Russian research and disposition efforts, which advances the U.S./Russian goal of irreversibly reducing nuclear arms.

URA® projects include a joint effort to study immobilization of plutonium and its subsequent long-term underground storage, mixed-oxide fuel fabrication and use, laboratory glass vitrification, and research on how plutonium migrates in various rock formations.

Decision Making Tool to Select Disposition Methods

The initial challenge faced by the U.S. as it geared up to begin nuclear materials disposition was to develop as many disposition alternatives as possible, then find a way to identify the best options. DOE's original list had 37 options to be considered.

URA® developed and applied a systematic, quantifiable analysis tool that allowed DOE to consider many factors such as cost, safety, schedule, and proliferation risk. This tool enabled DOE to select the two best alternatives and analytically defend its choices. Called MAUA, the analysis tool also allowed DOE to analyze the effectiveness of having both reactor and immobilization options, and to consider the cost trade-offs involved in having two options.

Development of an Automated System for Airborne Particle Analysis

To increase the safety of plutonium operations, URA® developed a unique way of collecting extremely fine airborne particles for analysis. The new technique provides better measurements of small airborne contaminants and provides a better mechanism for characterizing plutonium processes.

The technique, which uses an electrostatic charge to collect the particles, is highly efficient and allows collection of particles across a wide range of sizes.

Design of Nuclear Reactor Fueling Transitions

In order to use mixed-oxide fuel in nuclear reactors that previously have used only uranium fuel, new fuel plan designs were needed.

Using state-of-the-art computer simulations, researchers for URA® determined the fractions of uranium and plutonium that should be used, and how mixed-oxide fuel should be distributed inside reactors. The researchers worked in conjunction with Westinghouse, Inc. to design the fuel plans.

This action ensures that the operational performance and safety of reactors using mixed-oxide fuel is equal to or surpasses current operational performance and safety levels.

Development of Tracers for Plutonium Storage Container Leak Detection

If plutonium storage containers are stored together, and one of the containers begins to leak, it is important to be able to determine which storage container is leaking.

Researchers for URA® developed a new method for detecting leaks in plutonium storage containers. The new leak detection method involves placing trace chemical elements inside the containers.

Five chemicals were identified that could be used in this manner. By combining the elements in different combinations, an automatic detection system can immediately determine which container is leaking.

Biodegradation Studies

Traces of high explosives from World War II-era and other past missions have been detected in the perched aquifer. The perched aquifer is separated from the Ogallala Aquifer and is not used for drinking water (Source: 1995 Environmental Report for the Pantex Plant, page 51 by Anthony T. Biggs and Holly L. Jones). The plant, however, is committed to cleaning up the perched aquifer and bringing it to regulated levels.

URA® found methods of removing high explosives from the perched aquifer through bacteria that "eat" high explosive contaminants. These bacteria, which are naturally found in the soil in small numbers, are able to degrade up to 97 percent of the supplied RDX (one type of high explosive) from a solution in 18 days.

Responding to State Requests to Review and Comment on Environmental Impact Statements

The governor's office of the state of Texas asked URA® to review the Stockpile Stewardship and the Storage and Disposition Programmatic Environmental Impact Statements, as well as the Pantex Site-Wide Environmental Impact Statement for technical correctness and clarity during the DOE period of public comment.

The expertise of the URA® consortium members resulted in a thorough review, and substantive comments were provided to DOE to ensure the rights of the state of Texas were adequately represented.

Immobilization of Plutonium in Ceramic Media

One method of storing plutonium and other wastes is the can-in-canister system, which essentially is a double-containment system involving a can of plutonium sealed in glass or ceramic within another canister.

URA® helped to identify ways to maximize the loading of plutonium in each canister, minimize the potential for geological leaching after long-term storage, create an adequate barrier around the plutonium to prevent theft, and determine how the thermal processing history affects the final properties and quality of the solid glass casts. In other research, URA® scientists identified the solubility of plutonium in ceramics so they could in turn learn more about the ability of ceramics to resist corrosion.

Senior Technical Review Group

The question of how the United States should deal with its weapons plutonium is of such significance that URA® called upon 17 of the nation's key leaders in science, engineering, foreign policy, industry, and public health to review the United States' policies on plutonium disposition and the process by which these options should be developed. The group included a Nobel Laureate, a former U.S. Ambassador, and six members of the National Academies of Science and Engineering.

The Senior Technical Review Group (STRG) has produced nine reports to date.

Gallium Removal

A challenge to dual-track disposition was determining the effect gallium may have on the cladding of mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel elements. Although wet removal processes are commonplace, DOE's desire to minimize wastes required the development of a dry removal process.

URA® researchers developed, tested, and patented a dry process that removes gallium before the production of MOX fuel. URA® collaborated with Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) to prove the concept.

Radiation Degradation to Stainless Steel

Radiation from decaying plutonium could have an effect on plutonium storage containers. To determine stainless steel's integrity for long-term storage, URA® researchers addressed how radiation from decaying plutonium affects stainless steel storage containers.

Plutonium undergoing radioactive decay emits alpha particles in the form of helium atoms. To perform the study, URA® researchers used an accelerator to simulate bombardment of the stainless steel by these alpha particles. The studies simulated the equivalent of plutonium stored in stainless steel for 30 years.

Risk Characterization of Potential Missions at Pantex

The DOE's Storage and Disposition of Weapons-Usable Fissile Materials Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement named Pantex as a potential site for two new missions: pit disassembly and conversion, and mixed-oxide fuel fabrication.

At the request of the State of Texas, URA® performed a risk characterization of each potential mission. The purpose of the risk characterization was to determine what effect, if any, either mission could have on human health or the environment, and thus help policy makers determine how appropriate the missions were for Texas.

URA® assembled a team of university researchers who performed the risk characterization and reported the preliminary results in November of 1997. An extensive communications effort elicited public input into the study.

The study found that the risks associated with the two potential missions were comparable to the risks associated with current Pantex missions. The study was well received throughout the city, the state, and the DOE complex.

Gallium Interactions with Zircaloy Cladding

Questions were raised about the suitability of weapons plutonium for use in mixed-oxide nuclear reactor fuel because weapons plutonium contains gallium, an additive that could potentially have a deleterious effect on fuel rod casings.

URA® researchers investigated the effects gallium would have on mixed-oxide fuel used for weapons plutonium disposition. The results of these experiments helped establish how much gallium is acceptable in mixed-oxide fuel.

Determining Ogallala Aquifer Recharge Via Interplaya Regions

In the Texas Panhandle, the Ogallala Aquifer is primarily recharged via a great number of playa lakes that are interspersed throughout the region. While it is anticipated that very little recharge comes from the interplaya region (regions between the playa lakes), no one really knows how much interplaya recharge occurs.

URA® researchers installed instruments at Pantex that allow accurate measurements of the infiltration rate from these interplaya regions. This data led to the development of more accurate mathematical models that were used to predict the flow of contaminants through the perched aquifer. The information gleaned from this research will ultimately be used to design better engineered systems to halt the flow of contaminants.

NATO Advanced Research Workshop

Both the U. S. and Russia are in the process of reducing nuclear weapon inventories. Therefore, finding ways to dispose of materials such as weapons plutonium, and to continue to protect human health and the environment, are of major interest to both sides.

In March 1997, URA® hosted a NATO Advanced Research Workshop. The Amarillo workshop was the fourth in a series of meetings between U. S. nuclear scientists and their Russian colleagues. The week-long workshop featured technical briefings and discussions on nuclear materials handling, disposition, and safety.

The goal of the conference was to assess and contribute to ongoing nuclear research, identify directions for future research projects, and promote friendly and cooperative working relationships between scientists from different countries and with different professional experiences.

Determining Effectiveness of Perched Aquifer Clean Up

The perched aquifer that lies beneath Pantex is contaminated with high explosives and chromium from WWII-era and other past missions. The plant is cleaning up the aquifer by removing the water via wells into the perched aquifer and filtering it through two 10,000 gallon tanks filled with granulated activated carbon. The clean water is reinjected into the perched aquifer.

URA® researchers collaborated with Pantex contractors in performing a field test to determine if the reinjection clean-up efforts were effective. This research showed that recirculation is a viable method of reducing the level of contamination in the perched aquifer.

Reducing Plutonium Contaminated Waste

In an effort to significantly reduce the amount of plutonium-contaminated waste produced at Department of Energy (DOE) plutonium processing facilities, URA® researchers collaborated with researchers at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) to develop a new actinide extractant. The extractant provides an improved method for recovering plutonium from nitric acid solutions. Concentrated nitric acid is a key component in the most common plutonium recovery process used in LANL's defense programs.

New "bifunctional anion-exchange resins" developed during this research show an increased affinity for plutonium dissolved in nitric acid when compared to previously used commercial resin. Increased affinity means greater amounts of plutonium-contaminated waste can be processed in shorter periods of time, and can be cleaned up to levels never achieved using previous methods.

The new extractant, di-(5-t-butylphenyl)-N,N-diisobutylcarbamoylmethylphosphine oxide, is expected to become a permanent component of separations processes at LANL.

Contamination Detection

Preliminary information released by a state regulatory agency detected very small amounts of high explosives in the Ogallala Aquifer. The contamination was above the detection limit of sensitive laboratory equipment, but far below the limit for health concerns.

The State of Texas asked URA® to assist DOE in developing a rational means for reporting this type of data. URA® convened environmental experts from the university consortium who developed a defensible plan to address this data. These efforts are helping DOE and the state agency resolve this issue.

Testing Beryllium Reaction to Chlorinated Solvents

Corrosion has been detected on plutonium pit casings made of beryllium. In a study to determine what effect, if any, the use of chlorinated solvents used to clean outer plutonium pit casings could have on the outer casing of plutonium pits, URA® researchers evaluated the solutions used to clean the plutonium pit casings to determine if one or both were contributing to the corrosion.

Researchers found that one cleaning solution, TCE, may cause beryllium corrosion, while the other, TCA, does not.

Because researchers were able to define and understand the mechanisms that may lead to the beryllium oxide layer being penetrated, storage facilities can eliminate corrosion risk by using solvents that do not contain TCE.

Researcher's Conferences

URA® hosted a number of Researcher's Conferences. These conferences provided a forum for researchers from URA® consortium universities and the national laboratories to present and discuss research they had conducted. The research pertained to nuclear operations and related safety and environmental issues.

Presentations related to nuclear opeartions research included handling, transporting, processing, and storing plutonium and other nuclear materials.

Presentations related to environmental research included environmental restoration and protection, waste management, and health and safety.

URA® and Belgonucleaire Agreement

Since the U.S. has foregone reprocessing of spent fuel, no MOX modeling capability exists in this country.

URA® and Belgonucleaire of Brussels, Belgium, entered into an agreement that provided URA® researchers with Belgonucleaire's COMETHE computer code. Belgonucleaire manufactures the largest quantities of MOX fuel in the world and is a leader in the scientific understanding of MOX fuel performance.

The COMETHE computer program analyzes weapons plutonium disposition in light water reactors (LWRs), and is one of the world's most advanced programs for modeling the thermal, mechanical, and chemical performance of MOX fuel.

Stored HEU Vulnerability Study

URA® researchers participated in a year-long DOE study that identified and prioritized environmental, safety, and health vulnerabilities associated with highly enriched uranium (HEU) storage and handling.

To conduct the study, URA® trained more than 100 individuals who carried out the study and compiled site-specific information and databases to analyze historical events.

The study created a data base of past HEU-related events and provided an information base for identifying and prioritizing corrective actions that, when implemented, significantly decrease the risk of worker, public, or environmental exposure to HEU.

Enzyme Found to Reduce Volume of Cellulose Contaminated Waste

URA® researchers demonstrated that commercial enzyme solutions can be used to reduce the volume of cellulose wastes (glovebox wipes, paper, etc.) when cellulose is contaminated with plutonium.

The process digests the majority of the cellulose, which greatly reduces the amount of material containing plutonium and other radionuclides that must be disposed of as low-level waste (LLW) or trans-uranic waste (TRU).

The research showed that the enzyme solution is capable of degrading the cellulostic material in the presence of plutonium, does not cause significant disposal problems, and does not create intermediates that require special disposal. In addition, the digestion process is carried out at moderate temperatures and at atmospheric pressure, thus requiring no special containment for operations at high temperatures or high pressures.

Facility Analyses, Aircraft Overflight

URA® researchers conducted extensive studies of potential aircraft crashes at DOE facilities in an effort to predict the possibility of such occurrences. Similar studies have been conducted in the past, but URA® identified weaknesses in some of those studies and provided a more accurate, up-to-date model.

The newly developed model takes into account appropriate accident statistics for each military aircraft flying into Amarillo airspace, and is able to calculate aircraft crash probabilities more realistically than previous models.

This information enabled authorities to make changes to flight paths to further protect Pantex and nearby residents.

Transportation of Hazardous Materials

Every day, hazardous waste is transported throughout the country by land, air, and water. Shippers seek to transport their materials along routes that minimize cost while minimizing the potential risk to the population along the route.

For the most part, the transportation models shippers use to plan routes tend to assume static conditions. In other words, existing transportation models assume travel time, risk, and other factors along a selected path are the same every day of the week and every hour of the day.

In the research project "Optimal Routing of Hazardous Substances in Time-Varying Stochastic Transportation Networks," URA® researchers developed new techniques for determining routes that incorporate the stochastic (involving or containing random variables) and time-varying nature of future travel conditions.

By introducing this variability, shippers can select more effective routes.

This well-received research was an important component of Dr. Elise Miller-Hook's dissertation research, for which she earned the Council of University Transportation Center's Best Dissertation Award for 1997.

Development of New Mass Spectrometer

A miniaturized mass spectrometer was developed by URA® researchers.

Mass spectrometers are used to identify toxic gases in the environment, to monitor chemical compound processing in chemical plants, and to evaluate the chemical make-up of complex materials. Most conventional mass spectrometers are large, stationary, and expensive instruments.

Because it is much smaller than existing mass spectrometers - less than seven inches long - the newly developed spectrometer can be used in a glovebox and more easily used in field applications. It is rugged, light weight, low cost, and therefore suitable for field applications such as environmental monitoring and process control in chemical plants.

By bringing the measurement device into the field, the shortcomings of collecting samples for laboratory analysis can be avoided. Sampling costs are minimized and sampling is done in real time at the site, which allows quick response time. A quick response time is of particular value when timely on-site identification is required in an emergency situation.

Lake Sedimentation Rate Updated by Study

Researchers funded by URA® determined that it will be many more years before Lake Meredith in the Texas Panhandle requires modification.

The lake is a major water source for Panhandle residents. When constructed in 1965, the lake was projected to have a 60-year life span before sedimentation would make modifications necessary.

Using lake volume measurements taken by the Texas Water Development Board in 1995, researchers found that the amount of sedimentation that had occurred at Lake Meredith after 30 years was only 15 percent of 1965 expectations.

Based on the recalculated sedimentation rates, Lake Meredith should provide water to parts of the Texas Panhandle for approximately 170 total years - or roughly 110 years longer than initially projected in 1965 - before sedimentation makes lake modifications necessary.

Decomposition in Complex High Explosive Mixtures

The lifetime and safe handling of nuclear weapons components are affected by the degradation of the materials in the weapons. URA® researchers addressed decomposition issues by identifying the ways in which heat, chemical processes, and exposure to electromagnetic radiation contribute to the decomposition of high explosives, plasticizers, and plastic polymer binders.

The results of this research will be useful in identifying ways to increase weapons' lifetimes and thereby reduce the cost of the enduring stockpile.

Independent Review of Safety Analysis Report Dispersion Calculations

There are currently more than 90 plume dispersion models. URA® researchers conducted an independent review of some of the most commonly used models to clarify public health issues associated with present and planned Pantex missions.

URA® researchers developed a new dispersion model for ground-level area-source contaminant transport. The new model more accurately predicts downwind concentrations from ground-level area sources. The new model also handles a wider variety of pollutants, ranging from gases with various densities to heavy particulate aerosols.

Increasing Understanding of Plutonium

Modern computational capabilities provide a cost-effective and reliable tool for researchers to understand how materials will respond to a variety of environmental and physical factors.

In the research project "Modeling of Solid State and Thermodynamic Properties of Actinides," URA® researchers used modern computational techniques and equipment to find theoretical and computational evidence of a new plutonium dimer, Pu2. (A dimer is two atoms that have bonded together to form a molecule with less total energy than the total energy of the two atoms when separated by an 'infinite' distance.)

If the existence of the plutonium dimer is experimentally verified, this will allow many properties of plutonium to be understood at a fundamental level. In turn, this will help scientists to understand better how plutonium will behave under different conditions. Such understanding is essential for managing the nation's nuclear resources with a fully science-based management program.

Independent Plutonium Disposition Analysis

URA® researchers completed a study to verify that new facilities planned by the Department of Energy (DOE) for plutonium conversion and MOX fuel fabrication are of the proper size.

Researchers systematically identified three yearly plutonium processing rates that would result in the lowest costs while minimizing disposal time. The analysis optimized the yearly production while considering the constraints placed by the processing capability of each module in the disassembly and conversion system. The analysis also considered the processing capability of the MOX fuel fabrication plant and the fuel consumption capability of the nuclear reactors. Trade-offs between time and cost were weighed by accounting for the estimated number of workers and facility space required for each module.

The URA® study verified that DOE's plans, as stated in its Environmental Impact Statement for disposing of 3.5 metric tons of plutonium per year, are appropriate.


Since 1995, URA® has provided more than $2 million to educational organizations and programs that benefit the people of the Texas Panhandle. These funds have had a direct impact on approximately 6,000 teachers and 120,000 students.

Among the education programs funded by URA® are:

Fannin Middle School Discovery Lab
This facility was equipped with 15 computer workstations with Internet connections and software that can be used for various projects. The lab, which was designed by Fannin Middle School teachers to meet the unique needs of Fannin students, serves 150 students each school day.

JASON Project
JASON is a year-round project that provides students with an electronic field trip via satellite. The field trip gives students the opportunity to experience and participate in real-time research as scientists work in the field at sites in the U.S. and other countries.

Texas PreFreshman Engineering Program (TexPREP)
TexPREP is an eight-week summer project for middle school and high school students who have expressed an interest in engineering. Students attend classes, hear professional speakers, take field trips, and conduct research projects.

Traveling Chemistry Road Show
This program entertains as it educates students on chemistry principles.

West Texas A&M University Student Research Conference
This annual conference provides a unique opportunity for college and university students to pursue scholarly achievement and share the results of their pursuits with fellow academicians.

Panhandle Area Teachers Mathematics and Science Conference
This conference is held annually for teachers from the Texas Panhandle, Eastern New Mexico, and surrounding areas.

Building Foundations for Success in Mathematics and Science
This program encourages elementary school children to learn about the wonders of mathematics and science during Saturday classes and Intersession Day Camps. WTAMU student interns in education work with master teachers to develop and deliver curricula.

Middle School Science Resource Manual
Area teachers developed this manual as a resource on nuclear energy. Fifty teachers were trained to use the manual, and units were presented at state and national science education conferences. Manuals have been distributed to teachers worldwide in hard copy form and via the Internet.

West Texas Environmental Project for Integrative Studies in Science and Mathematics
Project personnel teach high school teachers to design and develop integrative curricula and instructional strategies around a common environmental-related theme that is of interest to students.