By JEFF MURPHY
WHILE World War II raged in the early 40s, a sleepy town on the Columbia River in Washington State was
chosen as a site to produce plutonium, a deadly by-product of the nuclear reaction process and a key ingredient of the atomic bomb.
The city of Hanford became the location of the world’s first full-scale nuclear reactor. Long after the war, as many as nine reactors were in place, running day and night as the U.S. engaged in the escalating Cold War with the Soviet Union.
As tensions eased between the two nations, the reactors were gradually decommissioned. The last one was converted to produce electricity.
Something else, however, remained. 53 million gallons of radioactive waste were stored in leaky underground tanks, creating one of the most toxic places on Earth.
The health and safety challenges that resulted from trying to clean up these sites continue to be addressed today by environmental health scientists such as Charles Olaiya.
THE University of Central Missouri (UCM), graduate has dedicated much of his life to helping others, by improving environmental health and safety.
This includes 14 years working for the U.S. Department of Energy at the Hanford Site, and most recently, two years at DOE’s Savannah River Site in Aiken, SC.
In recognition of his efforts to clean up toxic nuclear waste sites, as well as his groundbreaking research in chemical processing and industrial hygiene, UCM honoured him as the 2009 Distinguished International Alumnus.
Olaiya, who is also known for his generosity to UCM students, overcame many socio-economic obstacles to enjoy a successful professional career.
BORN in Nigeria, he lost his father at age six, but with the support of his mother and siblings traveled to the U.S. to study.
In his doctoral dissertation, he demonstrated how the removal of hexavent chromium from radioactive waste slurries could reduce the volume, time and cost required to vitrify high-energy radioactive waste stored at the Hanford Nuclear Weapons Site.
The research, which was done in cooperation with colleagues at Tulane, also resulted in a patent application filed by Tulane, the DOE and the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. It also contributed to Olaiya receiving DOE’s Exceptional Services Award. It is estimated that the study could result in a $2 billion savings.
Olaiya got more than an education at Tulane, his stay in New Orleans exposed him to the sufferings of victims of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, which motivated him to give back to the less privileged in the society.
He has done this, by establishing a scholarship award at UCM in honour of his parents and to encourage deserving black students to pick a career in industrial hygiene and public health, with the charge that they return to their home countries to help address poverty and health issues that are overwhelming Africa and the inner cities of the United States.
•Culled from the UCM school magazine