Disposing Sodium in Lake Lenore

Jul 27, 2021 0 comments

At the end of World War 2, the United States Army had an excess of metallic sodium left over from the war, which was used in the manufacture of incendiary bombs. The original plan was to sell off the surplus quantity, and when the material was advertised for sale it aroused the interest of several companies. But when the metal drums where the sodium was stored was inspected, it was found that the containers had deteriorated to such an extent that handling and shipping was extremely hazardous. Sodium reacts violently with water producing a lot of heat and hydrogen gas, which often ignites from the generated heat causing explosions. The railroad companies refused to handle the material in the substandard containers, thereby leaving the Army with a perplexing problem: how to dispose off 9,000 tons of extremely reactive sodium.

Lake Lenore. Photo: Scott Johnson/Flickr

The War Assets Administration decided to dump the sodium into a lake in Washington. To minimize the environmental impact of dumping thousands of tons of sodium in water, the Army chose Lake Lenore in Grant County because of its alkaline waters and lack of fish.

In a newsreel published in 1947, one can see the Army rolling down barrel after barrel of metallic sodium from a cliff onto the frozen lake. Once in water, the drums were shot by machine guns to cause puncture and allow the sodium to come in contact with water. As the sodium reacted with water, an estimated 162,000 cubic feet of hydrogen gas was produced, which caught fire producing a series of spectacular explosions.

“A once-lethal war chemical becomes a peacetime pyrotechnic display,” says the narrator in the video.

According to a paper published in 1958, the waters of Lake Lenore is already rich in sodium salts of sulfate, bicarbonate, carbonate, and chloride. The lake is highly alkaline with an average pH of 9.9, thus the dumping of 9,000 kg of sodium would have produced “less than a rounding error of pH change.”

Today, Lake Lenore is no longer devoid of fish. Since the mid-1980s, the state has been stocking the lake with Lahontan cutthroat trout that thrive in alkaline waters. The Lahontan is now the top aquatic predator in Lenore and in several other alkali lakes around North America.


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