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Researchers Concerned by Current Models for Nuclear Waste Storage

A new study shows that materials planned to store high-level nuclear waste underground are likely to corrode each other, causing degradation that could be harmful to people and the surrounding environment.

The materials the United States and other countries plan to use to store high-level nuclear waste will likely degrade faster than anyone previously knew because of the way those materials interact, according to new research from The Ohio State University (Columbus, Ohio, USA).

The findings show that corrosion of nuclear waste storage materials accelerates because of changes in the chemistry of the nuclear waste solution, and because of the way the materials interact with one another.

“This indicates that the current models may not be sufficient to keep this waste safely stored,” says Xiaolei Guo, lead author of the study and deputy director of Ohio State’s Center for Performance and Design of Nuclear Waste Forms and Containers, part of the university’s College of Engineering. “And it shows that we need to develop a new model for storing nuclear waste.”

Areas of Research Focus

The team’s research focused on storage materials for high-level nuclear waste—primarily defense waste, the legacy of past nuclear arms production. The waste is highly radioactive. While some types of the waste have half-lives of about 30 years, others—for example, plutonium—have a half-life that can be tens of thousands of years. The half-life of a radioactive element is the time needed for half of the material to decay.

The United States currently has no disposal site for that waste. According to the U.S. General Accountability Office (Washington, DC, USA), it is typically stored near the plants where it is produced. A permanent site has been proposed for Yucca Mountain in Nevada, though plans have stalled.

Though countries around the world have debated the best way to deal with nuclear waste, only Finland has started construction on a long-term repository for high-level nuclear waste.

Accelerated Corrosion

The long-term plan for high-level defense waste disposal and storage around the world is largely the same. It involves mixing the nuclear waste with other materials to form glass or ceramics, and then encasing those pieces of glass or ceramics—now radioactive—inside metallic canisters. The canisters then would be buried deep underground in a repository to isolate it.

In this study, the researchers found that when exposed to an aqueous environment, glass and ceramics interact with stainless steel to accelerate corrosion, especially of the glass and ceramic materials holding nuclear waste.

The study qualitatively measured the difference between accelerated corrosion and natural corrosion of the storage materials. Guo calls it “severe.”

“In the real-life scenario, the glass or ceramic waste forms would be in close contact with stainless steel canisters,” he says. “Under specific conditions, the corrosion of stainless steel will go crazy. It creates a super-aggressive environment that can corrode surrounding materials.”

Experimental Findings

To analyze corrosion, the research team pressed glass or ceramic waste forms—the shapes into which nuclear waste is encapsulated—against stainless steel and immersed them in solutions for up to 30 days. The conditions are designed to simulate those under Yucca Mountain, the proposed nuclear waste repository.

Those experiments showed that when glass and stainless steel were pressed against one another, stainless steel corrosion was “severe” and “localized,” according to the study. The researchers also noted cracks and enhanced corrosion on the parts of the glass that had been in contact with stainless steel.

Part of the problem lies in the Periodic Table. Stainless steel is made primarily of iron mixed with other elements, including nickel and chromium. Iron has a chemical affinity for silicon, which is a key element of glass.

The experiments also showed that when ceramics—another potential holder for nuclear waste—were pressed against stainless steel under conditions that mimicked those beneath Yucca Mountain, both the ceramics and stainless steel corroded in a “severe, localized” way.

The work was funded in part by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science (Washington, DC, USA).

Source: The Ohio State University, news.osu.edu.

Reference

1 “Current Model for Storing Nuclear Waste Is Incomplete,” Ohio State News, Jan. 27, 2020, https://news.osu.edu/current-model-for-storing-nuclear-waste-is-incomplete/ (Feb. 24, 2020).

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