Geological repository

A deep geological repository is a nuclear waste repository excavated deep within a stable geologic environment (typically below 300 m or 1000 feet). It entails a combination of waste form, waste package, engineered seals and geology that is suited to provide a high level of long-term isolation and containment without future maintenance.

Principles and background

The most long-lived radioactive wastes, including spent nuclear fuel, must be contained and isolated from humans and the environment for a very long time. Disposal of these wastes in engineered facilities, or repositories, located deep underground in suitable geologic formations is seen as the reference solution.[1] The International Panel on Fissile Materials has said:

It is widely accepted that spent nuclear fuel and high-level reprocessing and plutonium wastes require well-designed storage for periods ranging from tens of thousands to a million years, to minimize releases of the contained radioactivity into the environment. Safeguards are also required to ensure that neither plutonium nor highly enriched uranium is diverted to weapon use. There is general agreement that placing spent nuclear fuel in repositories hundreds of meters below the surface would be safer than indefinite storage of spent fuel on the surface.[2]

Common elements of repositories include the radioactive waste, the containers enclosing the waste, other engineered barriers or seals around the containers, the tunnels housing the containers, and the geologic makeup of the surrounding area.[3]

The ability of natural geologic barriers to isolate radioactive waste is demonstrated by the natural nuclear fission reactors at Oklo, Africa. During their long reaction period about 5.4 tonnes of fission products as well as 1.5 tonnes of plutonium together with other transuranic elements were generated in the uranium ore body. This plutonium and the other transuranics remained immobile until the present day, a span of almost 2 billion years.[4] This is quite remarkable in view of the fact that ground water had ready access to the deposits and they were not in a chemically inert form, such as glass.

Despite a long-standing agreement among many experts that geological disposal can be safe, technologically feasible and environmentally sound, a large part of the general public in many countries remains skeptical.[5] One of the challenges facing the supporters of these efforts is to demonstrate confidently that a repository will contain wastes for so long that any releases that might take place in the future will pose no significant health or environmental risk.

Nuclear reprocessing does not eliminate the need for a repository, but reduces the volume, reduces the long term radiation hazard, and long term heat dissipation capacity needed. Reprocessing does not eliminate the political and community challenges to repository siting.[2]


Deep geologic disposal has been studied for several decades, including laboratory tests, exploratory boreholes, and the construction and operation of underground research laboratories where large-scale in-situ tests are being conducted.[6] Major underground test facilities are listed below.

country facility name location geology depth status
Belgium HADES Underground Research Facility Mol plastic clay 223 m in operation 1982[6]
Canada AECL Underground Research Laboratory Pinawa granite 420 m 1990-2006[6]
Finland Onkalo Olkiluoto granite 400 m under construction[7]
France Meuse/Haute Marne Underground Research Laboratory Bure mudstone 500 m in operation 1999[8]
Japan Horonobe Underground Research Lab Horonobe sedimentary rock 500 m under construction[9]
Japan Mizunami Underground Research Lab Mizunami granite 1000 m under construction[9]
Korea Korea Underground Research Tunnel granite 80 m in operation 2006[10]
Sweden Äspö Hard Rock Laboratory Oskarshamn granite 450 m in operation 1995[6]
Switzerland Grimsel Test Site Grimsel Pass granite 450 m in operation 1984[6]
Switzerland Mont Terri Rock Laboratory Mont Terri claystone 300 m in operation 1996[11]
USA Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository Nevada tuff, ignimbrite 50 m 1997-2008[6]

Repository sites

country facility name location waste geology depth status
Argentina Sierra del Medio Gastre granite under discussion[12]
Belgium high-level waste plastic clay ~225 m under discussion
Canada OPG DGR Ontario 200,000 m3 L&ILW argillaceous limestone 680 m licence application 2011[13]
Canada spent fuel under discussion
China under discussion
Finland VLJ Olkiluoto L&ILW tonalite 60–100 m in operation 1992[14]
Finland Loviisa L&ILW granite 120 m in operation 1998[14]
Finland Onkalo Olkiluoto spent fuel granite 400 m under construction[7]
France high-level waste mudstone ~500 m siting[8]
Germany Schacht Asse II Lower Saxony salt dome 750 m closed 1995
Germany Morsleben Saxony-Anhalt 40,000 m3 L&ILW salt dome 630 m closed 1998
Germany Gorleben Lower Saxony high-level waste salt dome proposed, on hold
Germany Schacht Konrad Lower Saxony 303,000 m3 L&ILW sedimentary rock 800 m under construction
Japan high-level waste under discussion[15]
Korea Gyeongju L&ILW 80 m under construction[16]
Sweden SFR Forsmark 63,000 m3 L&ILW granite 50 m in operation 1988[17]
Sweden Forsmark spent fuel granite 450 m licence application 2011[18]
Switzerland high-level waste clay siting
United Kingdom high-level waste under discussion[19]
USA Waste Isolation Pilot Plant New Mexico transuranic waste salt bed 655 m in operation 1999
USA Yucca Mountain Project Nevada 70,000 ton HLW ignimbrite 200-300 m proposed, canceled 2010

The current situation at certain sites

The pit Asse II is a former salt mine in the mountain range of Asse in Lower Saxony/Germany, that was allegedly used as a research mine since 1965. Between 1967 and 1978 radioactive waste was placed in storage. Research indicated that brine contaminated with radioactive caesium-137, plutonium and strontium was leaking from the mine since 1988 but was not reported until June 2008[20]

The repository for radioactive waste Morsleben is a deep geological repository for radioactive waste in the rock salt mine Bartensleben in Morsleben, in Lower Saxony/Germany that was used from 1972–1998. Since 2003 480,000 m3 (630,000 cu yd) of salt-concrete has been pumped into the pit to temporarily stabilize the upper levels. The salt dome is in the state of collapse.

The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in the United States went into service in 1999 by putting the first cubic metres of transuranic radioactive waste[21] in a deep layer of salt near Carlsbad, New Mexico.

There was a proposal for an international high level waste repository in Australia[22] and Russia.[23] However, since the proposal for a global repository in Australia (which has never produced nuclear power, and has one research reactor) was raised, domestic political objections have been loud and sustained, making such a facility in Australia unlikely.

In 1978 The U.S. Department of Energy began studying Yucca Mountain, within the secure boundaries of the Nevada Test Site in Nye County, Nevada, to determine whether it would be suitable for a long-term geologic repository for spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste. This project faced significant opposition and suffered delays due to litigation by The Agency for Nuclear Projects for the State of Nevada (Nuclear Waste Project Office) and others.[24] The Obama Administration rejected use of the site in the 2009 United States Federal Budget proposal, which eliminated all funding except that needed to answer inquiries from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, "while the Administration devises a new strategy toward nuclear waste disposal."[25] On March 5, 2009, Energy Secretary Steven Chu told a Senate hearing the Yucca Mountain site is no longer viewed as an option for storing reactor waste.[26]

In Germany, there is a political debate about the search for a final repository for radioactive waste, accompanied by loud protests, especially in the Gorleben village in the Wendland area, which was seen ideal for the final repository until 1990 because of its location in a remote, economically depressed corner of West Germany, next to the closed border to the former East Germany. After reunification, the village is now close to the center of the country, and is currently used for temporary storage of nuclear waste.

The process of selecting appropriate deep final repositories is now under way in several countries with the first expected to be commissioned some time after 2010.[27] The Onkalo site in Finland is the furthest along the road to becoming operational, with waste burial currently scheduled to begin in 2020 (final approval is still missing). Sweden is also well advanced with plans for direct disposal of spent fuel, as its Parliament has decided that this is acceptably safe, using the KBS-3 technology.

The UK has been following the current path towards geological disposal since the 2008 Defra White Paper, entitled Managing Radioactive Waste Safely(MRWS). Unlike other developed countries the UK has placed the principle of voluntarism ahead of geological suitability. When seeking local council volunteers for stage 1 of the MRWS process only Allerdale and Copeland, within the county of Cumbria were volunteered by their councils. The same area that was previously examined and rejected in the 1990s. Stage 2 which was an initial unsuitability screening process was carried out by British Geological Survey (BGS) in 2010. This ruled out approximately 25% of the land area based on the presence of certain minerals and aquifers. There remains some controversy about this stage as the criteria appear to have been changed between the draft and final versions of this report, bringing the Solway Plain back into consideration. The Nuclear Decommissioning Authority claims that the interpretation of the criteria changed between the reports and not the actual criteria.

In June 2012, the geologist working for MRWS identified three rock volumes as potentially suitable for geological disposal of nuclear waste. These are the Mercia Mudstone Group rocks between Silloth Abbeytown and Westnewton in North Cumbria, and the Ennerdale and Eskdale granites further south which lie within the Lake District National Park.

The decision on whether to proceed to the next stage is due in January 2013, and will be taken by just seven councillors, forming the Executive of Allerdale and another seven from Copeland. The ten member cabinet of Cumbria County Council have a veto which could prevent the search continuing.

In January 2013, Cumbria county council used its veto power and rejected UK central government proposals to start work on a production reactor nuclear waste repository near the Lake District National Park. "For any host community, there will be a substantial community benefits package and worth hundreds of millions of pounds" said Ed Davey, Energy Secretary, but nonetheless, the local elected administrative and governing body voted 7-3 against research continuing, after hearing evidence from independent geologists that "the fractured strata of the county was impossible to entrust with such dangerous material and a hazard lasting millennia."[28][29]

See also


External links

  • Study by the World Nuclear Organization
  • Sandia Report Granite Disposal of U.S. High-Level Radioactive Waste
  • Sandia Report Salt Disposal of Heat-Generating Nuclear Waste
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