Deep geological repository

Deep 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 hazardous and long-lived radioactive wastes, including spent nuclear fuel, must be contained and isolated from humans and the environment for very long times. Disposal of these wastes in engineered facilities, or repositories, located deep underground in suitable geologic formations is being developed by many countries worldwide as the reference solution.[1]

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.[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.[3] Major underground test facilities are listed below.

Country Facility name / Region Geology Depth Status
Belgium HADES Underground Research Facility / Mol plastic clay 223 m in operation 1982[3]
Canada AECL Underground Research Laboratory / Pinawa granite 420 m 1990-2006[3]
Finland ONKALO / Olkiluoto granite 400 m under construction[4]
France Meuse/Haute Marne Underground Research Laboratory/ Bure mudstone 500 m in operation 1999[5]
Japan Horonobe Underground Research Lab / Horonobe sedimentary rock 500 m under construction[6]
Japan Mizunami Underground Research Lab / Mizunami granite 1000 m under construction[6]
Korea Korea Underground Research Tunnel granite 80 m in operation 2006[7]
Sweden Aspo Hard Rock Laboratory granite 450 m in operation 1995[3]
Switzerland Grimsel Test Site granite 450 m in operation 1984[3]
Switzerland Mont Terri Rock Laboratory / Mont Terri claystone 300 m in operation 1996[8]
USA Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository / Nevada tuff, ignimbrite 50 m 1997-2008[3]

Repository sites

Country Facility name / Region Waste Geology Depth Status
Argentina Sierra del Medio / Gastre granite under discussion[9]
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[10]
Canada spent fuel under discussion
China under discussion
Finland VLJ / Olkiluoto L&ILW tonalite 60–100 m in operation 1992[11]
Finland Loviisa L&ILW granite 120 m in operation 1998[11]
Finland ONKALO / Olkiluoto spent fuel granite 400 m under construction[4]
France high-level waste mudstone ~500 m siting[5]
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[12]
Korea Gyeongju L&ILW 80 m under construction[13]
Sweden SFR / Forsmark 63,000 m3 L&ILW granite 50 m in operation 1988[14]
Sweden Forsmark spent fuel granite 450 m licence application 2011[15]
Switzerland high-level waste clay siting
United Kingdom high-level waste under discussion[16]
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

Safety and feasibility assessment

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[17]

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[18] in a deep layer of salt near Carlsbad, New Mexico.

Future plans and remaining risks

Schematic of a geologic repository under construction at Olkiluoto Nuclear Power Plant site, Finland
Swedish KBS-3 capsule for nuclear waste.

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.[19] 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. There is also a proposal for an international high level waste repository in Australia[20] and Russia.[21] 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.[22] 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."[23] 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.[24]

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.[25] Sweden is 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. 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 it is now close to the center of the country. This location is currently used for the temporary storage of nuclear waste.

But 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.[26] Major environmental and security problems at existing repositories such as Schacht Asse II in Germany have also cast doubt on the quality and objectivity of such safety assessments.[17] One of the challenges facing the supporters of these efforts is to demonstrate 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. Existing repositories in deep geological formations (e.g. Schacht Asse II and the repository for radioactive waste Morsleben in Germany) show that solutions to the problem of radioactive waste remain elusive and that safe and environmentally sound storage cannot be guaranteed, especially over long periods of time.[26]

See also


  1. ^ NEA - Moving forward with geological disposal
  2. ^ US DOE - Radioactive waste: an international concern
  3. ^ a b c d e f IAEA-TECDOC-1243
  4. ^ a b ONKALO
  5. ^ a b Andra - French National Radioactive Waste Management Agency
  6. ^ a b JAEA R&D Review 2010, R&D on Geological Disposal of High-Level Radioactive Waste
  7. ^ Korean KURT facility home page
  8. ^ Mont Terri Project
  9. ^ The Argentine radioactive waste respository: Basic criteria, preliminary siting and design conceptual basis
  10. ^ Ontario Power Generation DGR page
  11. ^ a b T. Aikas and P. Antilla. 2008. Repositories for low- and intermediate-level waste in Finland. Reviews in Eng. Geology 19, 67-71.
  12. ^ NUMO website
  13. ^ Nuclear Power in South Korea
  14. ^ SFR
  15. ^ Licence application March 2011
  16. ^ Managing Radioactive Waste Safely (MRWS) UK Department of Energy and Climate Change
  17. ^ a b Problems at Germany's Asse II Nuclear Waste Repository
  18. ^ DOE Waste Isolation Pilot Plant Receives EPA Recertification
  19. ^ R. Naudet. 1976. The Oklos nuclear reactors: 1800 millions years ago. Interdisciplinary Science Reviews, 1(1) p.72-84.
  20. ^ Holland, I. (2002). "Waste not want not? Australia and the politics of high-level nuclear waste". Australian Journal of Political Science (37): 283–301. 
  21. ^ Disposition of high-level waste and spent nuclear fuel: The continuing societal and technical challenges. Washington, DC: National Academy Press. 2001.
  22. ^ Earthquakes In The Vicinity Of Yucca Mountain
  23. ^ A New Era of Responsibility, The 2010 Budget, p. 65.
  24. ^ Hebert, H. Josef. 2009. “Nuclear waste won't be going to Nevada's Yucca Mountain, Obama official says.” Chicago Tribune. March 6, 2009, 4. [1] Accessed 3-6-09.
  25. ^ "Final disposal nearing realization". Press release. Swedish Nuclear Fuel and Waste Management Co.. 2007-09-28. Retrieved 2009-01-05. 
  26. ^ a b Vandenbosch, Robert, and Susanne E. Vandenbosch. 2007. Nuclear waste stalemate. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press.

External links

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