Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Not In The History Books

According to our local newspapers, there will be a ceremony today including local dignitaries for the start of the last stages of demolition at DP Site in Los Alamos.

DP stands for "D Prime," as I recall, but is given as "Delta Prime" on the Los Alamos National Laboratory's website. There was an earlier plutonium processing site, D Site, much closer to the central part of the Manhattan Project work and what is now central Los Alamos.

Much of the DP plutonium processing area has already been torn down, during the nineties when some of my colleagues and I did some cleanups. The building now scheduled for demolition housed administrative personnel and the entry to the plutonium laboratories. After plutonium processing was moved to TA-55, where it currently is done, the building was used for a number of other groups. I had an office there for several years in the eighties. But that's not today's story.

Back in the seventies, I was working on a way to use photochemistry in reprocessing nuclear fuel. The customary method of separating plutonium and uranium required large amounts of ferrous sulfamate to reduce the oxidation state of the plutonium from 4+ to 3+ so that it could be extracted from the uranium, which was present as the uranyl (UO22+) ion. The products of ferrous sulfamate wound up in the highly radioactive waste.

My method (worked on with two partners) was to reduce the uranyl ion to U4+ with light and the residual organic material (tributyl phosphate and kerosene) in the solution from previous solvent treatments. The U4+ then reduced the plutonium. No added reagents, much less waste.

We had worked out the uranium part of the chemistry in our laboratory, but plutonium could be handled only at DP Site, in the gloveboxes.

In order to work in plutonium gloveboxes, you have to change from your street clothes to coveralls and work shoes. And there are other things, like taping your sleeves and using surgical gloves before you put your hands in the gloves on the boxes.

The problem was that the change room (and entry to the glovebox area) had a sign on the door: "Men." Only one change room had been built. At the time I wanted to do my experiments, a change room for women was being jerry-rigged. It was a trailer outside the building, so the route from the glovebox area to the change room went outside; never would be allowed now. You had to monitor yourself before going out of the glovebox area, but still not such a great idea.

Whatever, I thought, although that wasn't the idiom at that time. I wanted to do the experiment and I had confidence that I wouldn't spread contamination. Or maybe I didn't even think about that.

But the women's change room wasn't ready. I could wait a week, and I did. And another week and another week. How much did they need in that trailer? lockers, monitoring equipment (you monitor and monitor and monitor when you are working with plutonium), boxes for booties and used coveralls, and a bench or two. I really wanted to do those experiments, and my partners, both of whom qualified for the old change room, were patient.

But there came a day when I wasn't. I stood outside that door marked "Men" and mused, kind of loudly, that maybe I would have to change in the men's change room if the women's wasn't ready pretty soon.

The next day, the women's change room was open for business. And I could do my experiments, which worked quite nicely.

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