I've a setting where some abandoned facility that was run by a joint venture of the military and a high-tech company, has its direct surrounding, outside the facility, littered with barrels full of a toxic, radioactive liquid waste product.

The radioactivity is of the stuff is of a level that you should not mess around with it, but you wouldn't be fried on the spot.

I'm looking for a plausible 'something' that they made or researched at this facility, that would be the source of barrels full of toxic waste. This 'something' could be of any nature, from microscopic size up to around the size of about half a standard shipping container.

Some background
The High-tech contractor had access to enough funds to toy around with whatever they though may lead to something useful for the military. They also had well paid PR people to explain away just about anything, if the general public somehow got the idea that their ethics where dubious.

The military is happy to put anything to good use, that is supplied to them. From drugged up soldiers to viral agents that (supposedly) selectively affect a certain group of people to neutron mortar shells, they would quickly find an operational use for it.

  • 4
    when downvoting, especially when somebody first posts at this site, please leave a comment. – Jacco Aug 5 '16 at 19:48
up vote 8 down vote accepted

This isn't hard at all. Any nuclear reprocessing plant has loads of liquid radioactive waste, and storing it in steel barrels and then trying to forget about it, because you haven't got anywhere to put it, is depressingly common practice.

The usual products of a reprocessing plant are uranium and plutonium, either as metal, for use in nuclear weapons, or as oxides, which are preferred for reactor fuel, or made up into complete fuel assemblies for nuclear reactors.

Your "something" can be uranium or plutonium, or any of the other isotopes that are produced during nuclear fission: if anyone wanted those, a reprocessing plant is the logical place to start extracting them. Or it can be almost anything else that someone in the government, military, or contractors decided to produce hidden away in a large industrial plant with very good security and good emergency facilities.

Of course, abandoning a site that has lots of stored radioactive waste is criminally irresponsible, but that may suit your story.

  • The largest reprocessing site (by volume) is the Savannah River Site. Thet explain their actual tanks in some detail. – Gary Walker Aug 6 '16 at 21:48
  • "criminally irresponsible" I know you only meant this as a turn of phrase, but just wanted to clarify that while this is crazy unethical, it is unfortunately rarely "criminal", at least in the United States. The burden of proof for criminal charges re: pollution is crazy high and rarely met. Even worse, because this is a military site, even civil penalties are probably barred, as the military typically gets immunity. This is very OT at this point, but best bet with these facts might be to hope for a qui tam violation on the part of the private contractor - very lucrative if possible. – Pink Sweetener May 5 at 16:41

Producing exotic chemicals off the grid

The first big thing to realize is that radioactivity isn't common. If something is radioactive, it is trying to decay into something else that is more stable (there might be cases where it first decays into something even more unstable). That means in order to have enough radioactive material to be significant, they're going to need to be producing radioactive material.

This means they should have a nuclear reactor on site. "A typical 1000 MWe light water reactor will generate (directly and indirectly) 200-350 m3 low- and intermediate-level waste per year." That's about two to three thousand barrels of radioactive waste a year, enough for it to be quite plausible that a hundred barrels could have been left behind when the facility was abandoned.

If the base is powered by a nuclear reactor, they can use a lot of energy (opening the door to doing a lot of fun science) without noticeably impacting the power grid. This fits in quite well to the theme of a secret facility.

Besides powering the base, the nuclear reactor also results in useful things like depleted uranium.

As for what else they're producing, you probably don't have to be terribly specific. There are loads of very dangerous chemicals. This is a fun video with some examples of dangerous chemicals. One quote from the video, talking about what happened when one of the chemicals spilled - "the concrete was on fire!". The barrels can contain byproducts and materials that were rejected because they either weren't toxic enough or were too toxic to work with.

  • What is “MWe”? I know MW (SI units) would make sense in context, but either the e is another unit (like we use watt·hour) or a different kind of thing? – JDługosz Aug 6 '16 at 19:53
  • @JDługosz megawatts electric. So it's specifying both how much energy it's producing and what form the energy is in – Rob Watts Aug 6 '16 at 21:09
  • Hmm, is that to distinguish between the usable output of the power plant and the energy of the fission process itself? I’ve never seen watts used for anything other than electricity: a mechanical power take-off would be in horsepower. – JDługosz Aug 6 '16 at 21:57
  • @JDługosz from what I can tell, that's exactly the reason. I actually didn't even notice it when I copied and pasted that quote. Anyway, this explanation of MWe mentions electrical output versus thermal overall power, so I suppose the purpose is indeed to distinguish between how much power is being produced and how much is actually usable. – Rob Watts Aug 7 '16 at 3:38

The only plausible source of highly radioactive liquid waste is at a nuclear reprocessing facility, such as the ones proposed back in the 1960's and early 70's.

The essential thing to understand about these facilities is that spent fuel rods from nuclear reactors were to be cut open and the resulting material dissolved in acid. The spent materials were them chemically or physically processed to separate uranium and plutonium from the various radioactive byproducts of fission, and then the materials were processed in separate streams to be reused or disposed of.

High level fission byproducts are intensely radioactive, but generally have short half lives. Plutonium Nitrate (the liquid resulting from dissolving plutonium in nitric acid) is not very radioactive at all, but should be treated more as a toxic heavy metal, much like the cadmium from older generations of rechargeable batteries.

Now the real question is why anyone in their right minds would be abandoning nuclear waste like you are describing? The high level wastes would most likely be glassified or turned in to some sort of solid form and then stored temporarily in giant cooling tanks. The Plutonium Nitrate would be suspended in "birdcages" (essentially a small dewar flask of Plutonium nitrate is held in the middle of a 55 gallon drum so even when drums are stacked together the Plutonium is never close enough to initiate a fission reaction), and the Uranium would most likely be converted back into Yellowcake (Uranium Hexafluoride) for ease of handling.

Even the most corrupt, backdoor dealing, Democrat party ward heeling contractor would not be leaving drums of stuff "lying around"; the Plutonium and Uranium is fantastically valuable in its own right, and leaving the other stuff "lying around" makes it far too easy for the contractor himself to be engulfed in some sort of industrial accident.

If anything, there would be a deep, concrete lined trench dug somewhere far from the plant and deep in the woods or in an abandoned quarry where barrels of waste could be easily and illegally disposed of, hidden under a huge mound of earth. Now your big question is who could you hire to dig a deep, concrete lined hole to bury things and who wouldn't talk about it either....?

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    "Democrat party ward heeling contractor" -- I have no idea what that means, but if it is a slur upon one of the American political parties, then it weakens the answer. – Wayne Conrad Aug 6 '16 at 1:46
  • "Now the real question is why anyone in their right minds would be abandoning nuclear waste like you are describing?" Fortunately, this question has an easy answer: global thermonuclear war. In the chaos that followed, people didn't really care about much else than their own sorrow state. – Jacco Aug 6 '16 at 10:15
  • If global thermonuclear war is the cause of the devastation, then nuclear reprocessing plants would be prime targets since they are the source of fissile material for nuclear weapons. You would have a field of glowing glass, not an abandoned nuclear facility.... – Thucydides Aug 6 '16 at 21:29
  • @Thucydides, only if it was a known facility at the time the nukes were exchanged. In the years after the event, survivors, don't care about much else then their own direct survival needs. – Jacco Aug 7 '16 at 9:17
  • A nuclear reprocessing plant isn't something you hide in a garage or small warehouse, and the fact that fissile material passes in and out of it would make it a target (even if it was secret, enemy intelligence would be looking long and hard for places which process fissile materials). And if it was somehow overlooked, I still maintain wastes would be stored by digging a deep hole offsite. – Thucydides Aug 7 '16 at 15:44

If you don't need to get too science-y, you can look at centrifuges used to make enriched uranium.

Uranium-238 is a bit heavier than Uranium-235. If you make your garden-variety Uranium — which is a mixture of 235 and 238 — liquid and let it stand for some time, 238 will concentrate on the bottom. This is excruciatingly slow though, centrifuges speed it up — 238 concentrates outside and 235 inside.

235 is radioactive too, but is less eager about it.

Usually gaseous form is used instead of liquid though — it's faster that way.

You could build a centrifuge that uses liquid form — it wouldn't make lots of sense IRL, but it's pretty close and makes lots of liquid waste.

You could convert gaseous waste to liquid form.

You could combine mining and enrichment. Say, you actually need isotope that is a bit lighter than its stable form (plutonium?), you drill a hole above the place where there's lots of it and pour tons of liquifier there, then wait 10 years or so and pump out the top layer which is unnaturally rich with isotope you need. Then you purify it even more (here comes the waste) and you're golden and you didn't even have to dig the whole thing out.

This wouldn't really work I suppose (separation would be too slow and you don't find those quantities of plutonium in the wild), but it's close enough.

One more point: centrifuges are insanely expensive and high-tech, compared to drilling a hole in the ground and pouring some liquid there.

Also there's a thing that differs "peaceful" radioactivity from "military" one.

"Military" is intense, burns hot, burns out quickly and then you can claim the land.

"Peaceful" is less intense and thus can turn the area uninhabitable for what can be considered an eternity in military timeline.

  • And where do you find a plutonium mine? – JDługosz Aug 6 '16 at 19:57
  • Depleted uranium is a valuable byproduct, not waste. – JDługosz Aug 6 '16 at 19:57

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