Critical Analysis of Spent Fuel Structure in Radionuclide Release

In collaboration with:Dr Claire Corkhill (University of Sheffield, project lead)

As a result of 60 years of using nuclear energy in civil and defense operations, the UK has generated a large legacy of nuclear waste, with a total volume capable of filling Wembley Stadium (450,000m3). The hazards posed to the general public from the radiation arising from this waste make its disposal extremely challenging; any solution must be long-lived as the waste will be radioactive for more than 100,000 years. For this reason, the Governments of several countries, including the UK, propose that the long-term disposal of this waste should be in a deep geological facility, several hundreds of metres below the ground. The formal term for an engineered geological disposal site is a Geological Disposal Facility (GDF). This man-made facility will be used to isolate the waste from future populations by using multiple layers of containment carefully designed to prevent radioactive elements (radionuclides) from entering the underground rock environment and eventually reaching the surface. Arguably, the most important part of the GDF is the nuclear waste itself;the release of radionuclides to the environment is controlled by the interaction of groundwater with the waste - if this material can be shown to be particularly durable in the presence of ground water, the release of radionuclides will be very small and the risk to future populations from the GDF will be low. The focus of my Fellowship is on understanding the release of radionuclides from one particular type of nuclear waste, known as spent fuel, upon contact with groundwater. Many countries are planning to dispose of spent fuel in a GDF (e.g.Sweden, Finland), however the spent fuel in the UK is unique, because it originates from nuclear reactors that only exist in the UK. This is problematic because the potential behaviour of this material when it comes into contact with groundwater is poorly understood; this gives rise to uncertainty in the long-term safety of this material in a GDF. Therefore, the goal of this Fellowship is to develop an understanding of UK spent fuel, of how its structure and chemistry affect the release of radionuclides upon contact with water, and to evaluate its performance compared to other spent fuel types. Because real spent fuel is extremely hazardous, the Fellowship research team will develop an analogue for spent fuel, known as HIPSIMFUEL, using state-of-the-art material processing technologies. The development of HIP-SIMFUEL, which will resemble spent fuel more closely than any other analogue currently available, represents a significant advancement for scientists working in the field of spent fuel research. Using HIP-SIMFUEL and a suite of advanced, high-resolution microscopy techniques, we will build the first ever atomic-scale understanding of the structure and chemistry of UK spent fuel, and we will develop novel imaging techniques to assess the role of these features in the mechanisms and rate of radionuclide release to groundwater. The results from experiments with HIP-SIMFUEL will be compared with those from real spent fuel particles; my team will examine particles of spent fuel that were discharged to the environment during the Chernobyl accident, which have subsequently been leached by natural groundwater for many years.

The Fellowship is particularly timely, given the UK Government's ongoing task of selecting a site for the disposal facility. The research represents a significant step in the understanding of the long-term performance of nuclear waste in the GDF, will enhance predictive models of future GDF behaviour and will help optimise the design of the containment system. Ultimately, this will lead to enhanced safety of the long-term management of nuclear waste in the UK and worldwide, and will increase public confidence of geological disposal concepts.

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