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Staff Accomplishments

PNNL Researchers Honored for Contributions to Actinide Separations

September 2007
Lee Burger's 2007 Glenn T. Seaborg Award makes four "wins" for Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, second only to Argonne National Laboratory in the number of Seaborg award recipients. Lee joins PNNL scientists Earl Wheelwright, Jack Ryan, and John Swanson in receiving this prestigious award to honor their extraordinary accomplishments, gained in more than 200 years of combined expertise in this field. The Glenn T. Seaborg Actinide Separations Award is a national award recognizing significant and lasting contributions to separating actinide elements, such as plutonium and uranium. This award reflects the judgment of the Actinide Separation Conference Board representatives currently from Argonne, Idaho, Lawrence Livermore, Los Alamos, Oak Ridge, and Savannah River National Laboratories, the Hanford Site, the University of New Mexico, and Washington State University. In 2007, the Actinide Separation Conference honored retired PNNL scientist Lee Burger with the Glenn T. Seaborg Actinide Separations Award. Lee's distinguished career spans the history of atomic energy technology, beginning with research at Columbia University in January 1942 where he worked to develop fluorocarbon solvents and diffusion membranes for separating uranium isotopes. This work was done under the Manhattan Project as part of the nation's quest to produce enriched uranium for its World War II effort. After completing his doctorate at the University of Washington in 1948, he helped develop solvents for the Hanford Site's recovery of plutonium and uranium through the REDOX and PUREX processes. His work included developing tributyl phosphate (TBP) as a solvent to extract uranium and plutonium. Later he contributed to a monograph on the science and technology of TBP. In addition to his contributions to actinide separations and actinide chemistry, Lee studied other aspects of the nuclear fuel cycle such as developing processes for managing and disposing of volatile radionuclides during uranium and plutonium recovery. This work continues to be of interest to scientists involved in nuclear materials recovery. Of the 24 recipients of the Seaborg award to-date, Lee is unique for his key contributions not only to actinide element separation but also to actinide isotope separation. Earl Wheelwright was PNNL's first Seaborg award winner in 1993. He began his career in 1955 working for General Electric before transferring to PNNL in 1965. During his career, Earl pioneered development of ion-exchange processes for the multi-kilogram-scale purification of selected actinide and fission-product elements. These include the co-development of a widely used anion exchange process for final purification of plutonium, an exchange process for the purification of promethium-147, and separation and purification process for americium, curium, and strontium-90. Earl conducted a research program that included valuable published research regarding promethium. As a task leader in the Nuclear Waste Vitrification Project, Earl was responsible for the design, construction, and operation of a "hot" pilot plant facility for processing fully irradiated commercial nuclear fuel and recovering the high-activity waste for waste-form demonstration. After this project, he became the program manager for efforts to separate and purify yittrium-90 for medical use and for a process to leach plutonium from waste. Throughout his career, Earl was recognized as a leader in his field and was sought after by DOE for review committees. Earl, along with the other Seaborg Award winners, was named "Outstanding Chemist of the Year" by the Richland Section of the American Chemical Society. Jack Ryan's career spans over 50 years, nearly all in the Radiochemical Processing Laboratory. He conducted original work in theoretical and applied chemistry, authoring many publications, contributing as key technical reviewer, and lecturing at many conferences. Jack also educated scientists and engineers at Hanford in lanthanide and actinide chemistry and ion-exchange chromatography. His work on anion exchange purification of plutonium and neptunium (partly in collaboration with Earl), on the catalyzed electrolytic dissolution of plutonium dioxide, and on the solubility and thermodynamics of the actinide oxides and hydroxides are of particular significance to actinide separations in the nuclear industry and the reason for his 1999 Glenn T. Seaborg Award. Jack performed research to develop and implement anion exchange purification of plutonium in Hanford fuels reprocessing and extended that work to neptunium. The plutonium process has since been performed worldwide to purify tons of material. In 1974, Jack co-invented, and subsequently performed applications research in catalyzed electrolytic dissolution of plutonium dioxide, a technique that is now used worldwide. In collaboration with fellow lab scientists, Jack's studies on solubilities of actinide dioxides, hydrous oxides, and hydroxides form part of the essential thermodynamic database for performance modeling necessary for repository licensing and operation. During the course of his 50-year Hanford career, John Swanson made major contributions to improving the PUREX process for the recovery and purification of uranium and plutonium from spent nuclear fuel including: investigating the stability of the PUREX solvent against radiolytic and hydrolytic degradation, inventing the Zirflex process for decladding Zircaloy-clad fuel elements, investigating safety issues associated with processing Zircaloy-clad fuel elements, developing methods to enhance zirconium decontamination, and partition plutonium from uranium with hydrazine-stabilized hydroxylamine nitrate. Because of his in-depth knowledge of the PUREX process, John also was invited to contribute a chapter to the TBP monograph. John later focused his expertise on meeting Hanford's shifting mission from production to remediation. One of John's focus areas was partitioning high- and low-level wastes for final disposal and developing separations methods for Hanford tank wastes. John investigated several methods to separate transuranic elements from the bulk waste including selective leaching, carrier precipitation, and the TRUEX process. John received the Glenn T. Seaborg Award in 2000. His pragmatic and analytical approach to solving problems is an on-going asset to DOE as a technical reviewer and advisor. John also has been a top actinide chemistry mentor for Hanford Site scientists. This award is a great honor and worthy recognition for such outstanding career achievements. Photo: L to R: Jack Ryan, Earl Wheelwright, John Swanson, and Lee Burger.

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