Darryl Siemer is a professional chemist who spent his career in nuclear waste remediation at the Idaho National Laboratory. While there, he developed a reputation as someone who will not go along to get along and apparently made quite a few waves by suggesting improvements in processes or technical decisions that might have resulted in the loss of numerous jobs by actually completing tasks and reducing expenditures on technical dead ends.
In a world dominated by “cost plus” contracting, beneficial suggestions are often quite unwelcome and can result in efforts to isolate and marginalize the source.
Contractors will often take advantage of the fact that most people have a very difficult time understanding that decision makers must avoid worrying about “sunk costs” when they are deciding on the best path forward. They point out all of the money that has already been spent on a particular project and tell you that it will all be “wasted” if they stop what they are doing and take a path that is more likely to lead to success.
The problem with that logic is that the money that has already been spent is gone. It is already wasted if the path to completion that builds off of the “completed” work will cost more than starting all over again on a more correct path that leads to a result that is actually better than the result that can be foreseen on the current path.
Darryl points out that there are several fatal flaws in the current technical path being followed at the Hanford tank farm. He is certain that attempting to segregate the sludge in the tanks is difficult enough to be called impossible within the constraints of any foreseeable expenditures. He knows that the borosilicate glass that has been chosen as the final waste form is incompatible with several of the components of the sludge. Finally, he believes that it is a fantasy to assume that there will be any available “somewhere else” that will accept the material, no matter what form it is in.
Darryl’s suggested path forward dodges each of those flaws in a rather elegant, “lazy cheapskate’s” approach to solving the very challenging problem.
Aside: One of the highest compliments I can pay to a scientist or engineer is to point out that they are following a “lazy cheapskate” approach. In my view, a good problem solver should be a lazy cheapskate who prefers to ponder rather than work, and to come up with a solution that will not result in any excessive costs and the minimum possible work in the future. End Aside.
The Siemer approach has three main components:
- Stop trying to separate the waste material
- Choose a more chemically appropriate waste form – specifically iron phosphate glass marbles
- Put the stable waste form back into some of same tanks it came from as part of the planned remediation process of filling up the tanks with grout – specifically MgO/KH2PO4 (“Ceramicrete”)
You can find more details of his proposed approach in the presentation titled A Practical Solution to Hanford’s Tank Waste Problem .
I thoroughly enjoyed talking with Darryl about his ideas for solving what seem to be intractable problems that are often used as an excuse for not moving forward with nuclear energy. Though he apparently did not have a terribly happy career with the DOE, he never let that organization’s famously wasteful decision making processes discourage him about the beneficial use of nuclear energy.
Dr. Siemer has been blowing his whistle rather loudly, but he has never been adopted by the people who normally support whistleblowers who complain about DOE programs. I am pretty sure that is because his complaints do not match their agenda of shutting the technology down. He sees problems and wants to solve them; he does not see barriers that cannot be overcome or that should be used as an excuse for continuing to rely on fossil fuel or unreliable alternative energy systems.
Darryl is an intellectually curious and active man who has taken on some unique hobbies at a period in his life when many would pick up clubs and slap at little round balls. He is also interested in Improving the Integral Fast Reactor’s Proposed Salt Waste Management System. That will have to the the topic of a future show, perhaps with some of my acquaintances that are well versed in the technical details of that program.