Rock Solid? A scientific review of geological disposal of high-level radioactive waste

Publication - September 15, 2010
European leaders are being misled over the safety of underground disposal of highly dangerous nuclear waste which could poison groundwaters for centuries, a new study concludes.

Author: Dr Helen Wallace (GeneWatch UK)

Executive summary: Worldwide, thirteen countries are actively pursuing long-term waste management programmes for high-level radioactive wastes resulting from nuclear electricity generation, but no country has yet completed an operational geological disposal facility for such wastes.

The European Commission Joint Research Centre’s 2009 conclusion that the technology of geological disposal has developed well enough to proceed with stepwise implementation is based largely on a description of ongoing research projects and nuclear agency reports, and references only three papers published in scientific journals. Further, the Centre’s report falsely claims that it is mainly due to a lack of public acceptance that repository programmes in Germany and the UK have (temporarily) foundered, rather than because of safety issues. Similarly, the statement of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD’s) Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA) that “geological disposal is technically feasible” and that a “geological disposal system provides a unique level and duration of protection for high activity, long-lived radioactive waste” is based on the collective views of its Radioactive Waste Management Committee, not on an analysis of the existing scientific evidence.

Based on a literature review of papers in scientific journals, the present report provides an overview of the status of research and scientific evidence regarding the long-term underground disposal of highly radioactive wastes.

This review identifies a number of phenomena that could compromise the containment barriers, potentially leading to significant releases of radioactivity:

- Copper or steel canisters and overpacks containing spent nuclear fuel or high-level radioactive wastes could corrode more quickly than expected.

- The effects of intense heat generated by radioactive decay, and of chemical and physical disturbance due to corrosion, gas generation and biomineralisation, could impair the ability of backfill material to trap some radionuclides.

- Build-up of gas pressure in the repository, as a result of the corrosion of metals and/or the degradation of organic material, could damage the barriers and force fast routes for radionuclide escape through crystalline rock fractures or clay rock pores.

- Poorly understood chemical effects, such as the formation of colloids, could speed up the transport of some of the more radiotoxic elements such as plutonium.

- Unidentified fractures and faults, or poor understanding of how water and gas will flow through fractures and faults, could lead to the release of radionuclides in groundwater much faster than expected.

- Excavation of the repository will damage adjacent zones of rock and could thereby create fast routes for radionuclide escape.

- Future generations, seeking underground resources or storage facilities, might accidentally dig a shaft into the rock around the repository or a well into contaminated groundwater above it.

- Future glaciations could cause faulting of the rock, rupture of containers and penetration of surface waters or permafrost to the repository depth, leading to failure of the barriers and faster dissolution of the waste.

- Earthquakes could damage containers, backfill and the rock.

Although computer models of such phenomena have undoubtedly become more sophisticated, fundamental difficulties remain in predicting the relevant complex, coupled processes (including the effects of heat, mechanical deformation, microbes and coupled gas and water flow through fractured crystalline rocks or clay) over the long timescales necessary. In particular, more advanced understanding and modelling of chemical reactions is essential in order to evaluate the geochemical suitability of repository designs and sites. The suitability of copper, steel and bentonite as materials for canisters, overpacks and backfill also needs to be reassessed in the light of developing understanding of corrosion mechanisms and the effects of heat and radiation.

Unless and until such difficulties can be resolved, a number of scenarios exist in which a significant release of radioactivity from a deep repository could occur, with serious implications for the health and safety of future generations. In this light, the existence in a number of countries of ‘road maps’ for the implementation of deep disposal, and the rejection of other options, do not automatically mean that deep disposal of highly radioactive wastes is safe.

At present, the following issues remain unresolved and have implications for policy development:

- the high likelihood of interpretative bias in the safety assessment process because of the lack of validation of models, the role of commercial interests and the pressure to implement existing road maps despite important gaps in knowledge. Lack of (funding for) independent scrutiny of data and assumptions can strongly influence the safety case

- lack of a clearly defined inventory of radioactive wastes, as a result of uncertainty about the quantities of additional waste that will be produced in new reactors, increasing radioactivity of waste due to the use of higher burn-up fuels, and ambiguous definitions of what is considered as waste

- the question of whether site selection and characterisation processes can actually identify a large enough volume of rock with sufficiently favourable characteristics to contain the expected volume of wastes likely to be generated in a given country

- tension between the economic benefits offered to host communities and long-term repository safety, leading to a danger that concerns about safety and impacts on future generations may be sidelined by the prospect of economic incentives, new infrastructure or jobs. There is additional tension between endorsement of deep disposal as a potentially ‘least bad’ option for existing wastes, and nuclear industry claims that deep repositories provide a safe solution to waste disposal and so help to justify the construction of new reactors

- potential for significant radiological releases through a variety of mechanisms, involving the release of radioactive gas and/or water due to the failure of the near-field or far-field barriers, or both

- significant challenges in demonstrating the validity and predictive value of complex computer models over long timescales

- risk of significant escalation in repository costs.

Num. pages: 67