Radioactive waste: Where to put it?

October 27, 2013

Boulder, CO, USA -- As the U.S. makes new plans for disposing of spent nuclear fuel and other high-level radioactive waste deep underground, geologists are key to identifying safe burial sites and techniques. Scientists at The Geological Society of America (GSA) meeting in Denver will describe the potential of shale formations; challenges of deep borehole disposal; and their progress in building a computer model to help improve understanding of the geologic processes that are important for safe disposal of high-level waste.

In the United States, about 70,000 metric tons of spent commercial nuclear fuel are located at more than 70 sites in 35 states. Shales and other clay-rich (argillaceous) rocks have never been seriously considered for holding America's spent nuclear fuel, but it is different overseas. France, Switzerland, and Belgium are planning to put waste in tunnels mined out of shale formations, and Canada, Japan, and the United Kingdom are evaluating the idea.

At the GSA meeting, U.S. Geological Survey hydrogeology expert C.E. Neuzil of Reston, Virginia, will report that some shales are so impermeable that there is little risk of radioactivity from buried nuclear waste reaching ground or surface water.

"This is usually difficult to demonstrate," Neuzil says, "but some shales have natural groundwater pressure anomalies that can be analyzed -- as if they were permeability tests -- on a very large scale." This capability was shown recently at the Bruce Nuclear Site, explains Neuzil, a proposed low/intermediate waste repository 1,200 feet underground in Ontario, Canada. Argillaceous rocks have additional attractive qualities, Neuzil says: They are common, voluminous, and tend to be tectonically quiet -- meaning no earthquakes to crack the walls of a fuel-rod burial chamber.

Another disposal option for nuclear waste is deep boreholes. The 2012 presidential Blue Ribbon Commission on America's Nuclear Future recommended more research, and the U.S. Department of Energy is now developing an R&D plan. However, the U.S. Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board (NWTRB) has statutory responsibility for evaluating the technical validity of DOE's nuclear waste activities, and is on the record with the position that deep boreholes present many technical challenges and studying them "should not delay higher priority research on a mined geologic repository."

At next week's GSA meeting, Review Board senior staff professional Bret W. Leslie and Stanford University geophysicist Mary Lou Zoback, an NWTRB member, will present the board's assessment of: Whether nuclear waste winds up in tunnels, boreholes or both, the planning will be helped by new analytical tools. One is a new computer model that will evaluate the behavior of various forms of nuclear waste, and waste containers and barriers, if stored in various rocks. The model is being developed under the auspices of the Center for Nuclear Waste Regulatory Analyses (CNWRA), the NRC's federally funded research and development center, and will be described at the GSA meeting by NRC performance analyst Jin-Ping Gwo.
What: Session 83: Disposal of Radioactive Waste: Promise, Progress, Pitfalls, and Path Forward
When: Sun., 27 October 1:00-5:00 PM
Where: Colorado Convention Center Room 303

Media contacts:
C.E. Neuzil, U.S. Geological Survey, (703) 648-5880 or (571) 527-7201 mobile,
Bret W. Leslie, U.S. Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board, (703) 235-9132 or (703) 785-6935 mobile,
Jin-Ping Gwo, U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission,

Contact: Kea Giles
Colorado Convention Center, Room 608

The Geological Society of America, founded in 1888, is a scientific society with more than 25,000 members from academia, government, and industry in more than 100 countries. Through its meetings, publications, and programs, GSA enhances the professional growth of its members and promotes the geosciences in the service of humankind. Headquartered in Boulder, Colorado, USA, GSA encourages cooperative research among earth, life, planetary, and social scientists, fosters public dialogue on geoscience issues, and supports all levels of earth science education.

Geological Society of America

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