A solution containing kilogram quantities of highly radioactive isotopes of americium and curium (Am/Cm) is currently stored in a process tank at the Department of Energy's Savannah River Site. This tank and its vital support systems are old, subject to deterioration, and prone to possible leakage. To address the stabilization of this material, vitrification of the isotopes has been considered. Potentially, the glass could be shipped to the isotope production and distribution programs at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory for californium-252 production and use by the transplutonium research community. However, before the Am/Cm could be used in these programs, it must be recovered from the glass.
To demonstrate the feasibility of recovering the Am/Cm isotopes from a glass, a series of small-scale experiments was performed as part of a compositional variability study. Glasses fabricated during the study utilized lanthanide elements as surrogates for Am/Cm due to the high specific activity of these materials. In the dissolution tests, glass formulations representative of potential uncertainties in the composition of the Am/Cm solution were fabricated, ground to a -35 to +60 mesh particle size, and dissolved in 8M nitric acid at 110°C. Under these conditions, at least 98% of the lanthanide oxides in the glass dissolved in less than 2 h meeting a recoverability criterion established for the vitrification process and imposing no limitations on the acceptable glass composition region.
Dissolution of the lanthanide borosilicate glasses was described by a spherical particle model based on the observation that the rate of change of the mass to surface area ratio remains constant. Calculation of dissolution rates using the model showed that the rate was proportional to the lanthanide oxide concentration in the glass. When silicon oxide (SiO2) was replaced with a lanthanide element at higher (simulated Am/Cm) loadings, the glass became more easily dissolved in nitric acid due to the solubility of the lanthanide oxides compared to SiO2.