Geo-disposal: radioactive waste

BGS Research

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The BGS has been involved in radioactive waste disposal research in the UK and internationally since the mid-1950s. As a public sector, not-for-profit organisation, we advise the UK government on a range of aspects of geoscience relevant to radioactive waste disposal as well as providing impartial advice to industry, academia and the public. We also undertake research for international governmental waste-management organisations across Europe and further afield, undertaking bespoke experimental laboratory and field programmes and modelling and data interpretations concerning the safe storage and disposal of radioactive waste.

The research we undertake is scientifically independent and impartial. It is subject to peer review and is intended to better inform debate and decisions about the siting of repositories for radioactive waste in the UK and elsewhere. This is achieved through improved understanding and knowledge of the physical, chemical and biological processes that affect the properties of the rocks as well as how the rocks interact with the engineered components of a repository and change over long periods of time (up to one million years in the future).

MoU with Radioactive Waste Management

BGS has entered a memorandum of understanding (MoU) agreement with Radioactive Waste Management (RWM) to inform the UK’s geological disposal programme. The two independent organisations jointly published a five-year agreement in June 2020, that sets out a framework for collaborative work at strategic, technical and operational levels. The collaboration between both organisations is intended to support improved environmental outcomes relating to the UK’s Geological Disposal Facility (GDF).

Research facilities and capabilities

Our radioactive waste disposal research encompasses a broad spectrum of capabilities. Our expertise and laboratory facilities are used to gain a better understanding of how physical, chemical and biological processes affect the physical properties of the rocks being considered to host a disposal facility. We also use them to understand the engineered materials used to surround the waste canisters underground over long timescales.

Analysing the transport of gas and water through low-permeability materials is an important aspect into research on the geological disposal of radioactive waste. This research is predominantly carried out within the Transport Properties Research Laboratory (TPRL).

Specifically designed experimental set-ups are used to analyse fluid (water or gas) flow and associated deformation of these low-permeability materials at a high resolution. These materials can range from naturally occurring clays or shales to artificial engineered barriers.

If you want to discover more then please contact Jon Harrington.

The Geomicrobiology Laboratory works with internal and external experts to deliver multidisciplinary research aimed at understanding the potential for the survival and activity of microorganisms in geological disposal facilities (GDFs). We design bespoke experimental laboratory programmes that allow us to monitor microbiology in GDF-representative pressures and temperatures.

If you want to discover more then please contact Simon Gregory.

We are a team of mineralogists and petrologists with expertise in characterising a wide variety of natural, experimental and engineered materials being considered for a radioactive waste GDF. These include:

  • metals, such as copper, steel and titanium
  • bentonite clays
  • cements
  • glass
  • geopolymers
  • rocks

 

Our work spans the deep and surface disposal community as well as those responsible for waste packaging and the investigation and clean up of radioactive contaminated sites. We work closely with experimental scientists, such as engineers, microbiologists and geoscientists, in designing laboratory and full-scale experimental programmes and analysing and interpreting the results.

We utilise a range of analytical techniques including optical microscopy, scanning electron microscopy (including STEM) and cryo, digital and etch-track autoradiography, as well as linking to other BGS facilities such as:

  • core scanning
  • X-ray diffusion
  • thermogravimetric analysis (TGA)
  • Brunauer–Emmett–Teller (BET) surface analysis
  • inorganic chemistry facilities (including ICP and ICP-MS)
  • ion chromatography
  • mercury porosimetry

 

Other, externally available techniques are also utilised including Diamond Light Source and NMR.

If you want to discover more then please contact Lorraine Field.

The National Geological Repository (NGR) houses geological material collected since the early days of the BGS in 1835 and now includes over 600 km of drillcore. As part of this collection, it also houses the core from 30 deep boreholes, which was obtained as part of the extensive NIREX geological investigations for a deep geological disposal site in the 1990s.

The new, state-of-the art Core Scanning Facility in the NGR provides geophysical, mineralogical and geochemical characteristics of a drillcore, including:

  • high-definition optical and ultraviolet (UV) imaging
  • X-ray fluorescence
  • X-ray computed tomography reconstructions
  • geophysical analyses:
    • gamma density
    • magnetic susceptibility
    • non-contact electrical resistivity
    • P-wave velocity
    • colour spectrophotometry (including NIR)
    • natural gamma activity

 

These techniques minimise the need for destructive sampling and enable scientists to target specific areas of interest for effective subsampling procedures.

If you would like to discover more then please contact Mike Howe.

Site selection and characterisation

It is internationally accepted that placing higher-activity radioactive waste deep underground puts it far beyond the reach of humans, locking it away from the biosphere so it is safe and secure. The surrounding rock plays an important role in shielding people and the surface environment we live in from radiation and, depending on the rock type, will either limit or completely prevent radioactivity from reaching the surface.

We contribute independent geoscientific advice and expertise to inform the selection and characterisation of rocks being considered to host waste disposal facilities and the properties of the wider geological environment. We also undertake research to predict how tectonic and climatic processes, such as seismicity and future glaciations, may affect a facility in the future.

As the UK’s national geoscientific body, we work closely with relevant government bodies (such as Radioactive Waste Management (part of the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority) and the Environment Agency) to fulfil a key role in the future selection and subsurface characterisation of a site for the UK GDF. We consider the provision of authoritative and impartial geoscientific input to the UK programme as part of our public good role. This enables our world-leading UK applied geoenvironmental research to objectively contribute to overcoming the challenges of delivering a GDF for UK higher-activity radioactive wastes.

 

If you would like to discover more then please contact Fiona McEvoy.

In support of the current UK geological disposal siting programme, the BGS was commissioned to independently undertake desk-based studies compiling existing, publicly available geoscientific information about England, Wales and Northern Ireland. This is referred to as the National Geological Screening exercise.

The outcome of the exercise is a series of 13 reports corresponding to the BGS Regional Guide series. Each report describes geological features relevant to the safety requirements of a GDF for radioactive waste emplaced onshore and up to 20 km offshore at depths between 200 and 1000 m from the surface.

Waste emplaced in a deep GDF will remain radioactive for up to a million years. We have a long track record in studying earth processes such as plate tectonics and associated seismicity and volcanism and we undertake research and predictive modelling of those processes that have the potential to affect a GDF over such long timescales. Climate-driven processes, such as glaciations, also affect the Earth and its surface.

If you want to discover more then please contact Fiona McEvoy.

We have a dedicated team of physical hydrogeologists and geochemists, as well as groundwater flow and thermal and solute transport modellers, who have expertise in providing information to inform safety cases for the storage and disposal of radioactive waste as well as the clean-up of legacy sites. We develop conceptual site models of groundwater flow and radionuclide transport, investigate groundwater and geochemical interactions in legacy sites and undertake integration of conceptual and numerical models from regional to site scales.

We undertake work for site owners and regulators both in the UK and internationally.

 

If you would like to discover more then please contact Andrew Hughes.

Contact

If you would like to discover more then please contact Fiona McEvoy.

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