Inside a French rural site, Britain is learning how to dispose of nuclear waste

An underground labyrinth of tunnels being built in the picturesque Champagne countryside in the French countryside is helping British scientists learn how to get rid of nuclear waste.

Several countries around the world are building geological disposal facilities (GDFs) deep underground to permanently house the radioactive nuclear waste generated from power plants, nuclear weapons production, submarines, medical equipment and more.

France has an underground laboratory specially designed for this purpose, more than 400 meters below the wooded border of the Meuse and Haute-Marne regions, in a layer of Jurassic clay that is more than 160 million years old.

Britain is about 20 years behind the French project and plans to build its own £53 billion version 0.9 kilometers under the Northern or Irish Sea, and about 20 kilometers off the Cumbrian or Lincolnshire coast.

The project is essential to the long-term viability of nuclear energy and will be the largest infrastructure project in British history.

It requires both the consent of the local community and perfect geology before it can begin.

Amid the vineyards, castles and scenic roads of the northeastern French hinterland lies a 740 hectare site owned by Andra, the French National Agency for Radioactive Waste Management, which will be transformed in the coming decades into a GDF with the name Cigeo. opened in 2035.

The Telegraph had exclusive access to the laboratory where hundreds of experiments are being carried out to see how the rock copes with tunneling and its suitability to hide thousands of tonnes of hot and highly radioactive nuclear waste.

Wearing a hard hat, steel-toed boots and overalls, Jacques Delay, a scientist at the Cigeo site, revealed that the first-ever experimental repository for intermediate-level nuclear waste is nearing completion.

The prototype is a 10 meter high and 80 meter long cave, created using an ex-coal mine excavator used in Britain 60 years ago.

A space at the French site for very low-level waste and non-nuclear waste

Geological disposal facilities deep underground to permanently house radioactive nuclear waste – Paul Grover for the Telegraph

The site is the first life-size prototype in clay for this type of nuclear waste, which largely consists of spent fuel from nuclear power plants.

The site also features two dozen 22-inch wide boreholes for the removal of long-lived intermediate-level waste.

The most hazardous waste produced, which is stored on site, emits 145 sieverts (Sv) of radiation per hour. Exposure to a few sieverts is fatal to humans.

Cigeo is of particular interest to the UK’s Nuclear Waste Services (NWS) organisation, which is charged with cleaning up Britain’s 70-year-old nuclear waste stockpile, because it is built into the same rocks as those in Britain.

Prof. Neil Hyatt, the chief scientific adviser at NWS, told The Telegraph: “Anything we learn from colleagues in France can really help accelerate our own timeline, keep our own costs down and maximize safety.

“Visits to Cigeo and sharing the data can help us understand not only the geology and science, but also the practicalities of how we can build what is likely to be the largest infrastructure project ever undertaken in Britain.”

The French branch recently applied for a permit to begin construction of its facility, which will be located next to the current laboratory in the Champagne region.

A 4.1 km long cable car will transport waste packages underground in special barrels and underground robots will then move the packages through the tunnels.

The top level waste, which must cool to no more than 90 degrees Celsius for 70 years before it can be placed underground, will be in 100cm wide tunnels before being sealed.

Intermediate-level waste will be stored in larger tunnels, similar to the prototype currently under construction, and the final product will be 10 meters wide and 400 meters long.

Jacques Delay, a scientist, at the Cigeo site, the first ever experimental disposal site for medium-level nuclear wasteJacques Delay, a scientist, at the Cigeo site, the first ever experimental disposal site for medium-level nuclear waste

The top level waste must cool to no more than 90 degrees Celsius for 70 years before it can be placed underground – Paul Grover for the Telegraph

In the twenty years that the laboratory has existed, hundreds of experiments have been carried out, with thousands of holes drilled and tens of thousands of sensors installed.

Studies have included everything from soil compression, radiation absorption by the clay and how heat is transferred through the rocks.

The UK GDF is expected to open in the 2050s and it is estimated that there will be around 27 million cubic meters of waste – equivalent to 10,000 double-decker buses.

It will take fifteen years for a site to be selected and another fifteen years for the project to be completed. It will then be operational for well over a century.

The scale of the project is enormous and timelines are planned to span multiple generations.

For example, scientists and engineers are working to ensure the safety of the site for approximately 300,000 years – as long as human civilization has existed, which is also the time period needed for the radioactivity to decay safely.

A new nuclear power station is planned in North Wales, as well as Sizewell in Suffolk and Hinkley in Somerset, respectively, and the government has pledged to triple nuclear power generation by 2050.

A GDF is paramount to the safety and viability of nuclear energy, experts say.

Professor Hyatt, who has 20 years of experience in industry and academia, told The Telegraph: “Building a safe and permanent disposal facility is absolutely essential to a long-term nuclear strategy and is one of the biggest challenges in the world. modern world.

“A GDF is the only viable permanent solution to hazardous waste and will bring thousands of jobs and millions of pounds to a region every year for generations.”

Both Conservatives and Labor are believed to support the project, and scientists say there is no viable alternative.

High and medium level waste destined for the GDF is currently largely stored at Sellafield, but the site is almost full and requires ongoing repairs.

Jacques Delay, a scientist, at the Cigeo site, the first ever experimental disposal site for medium-level nuclear wasteJacques Delay, a scientist, at the Cigeo site, the first ever experimental disposal site for medium-level nuclear waste

Cigeo is of interest to the Nuclear Waste Services (NWS) organization charged with cleaning up Britain’s 70-year stockpile of nuclear waste – Paul Grover for the Telegraph

Insights from French colleagues are proving invaluable to the British venture, as the French project’s Jura clay is identical to the rocks beneath the North Sea off the Lincolnshire coast.

“The future GDF site in Lincolnshire will have similar clay to that in which the French site is built,” said Prof Hyatt.

“The geology of Cumbria is approximately 100 million years older and we are investigating its suitability there too with surveys started last year.”

The two local communities in the French regions affected by the work receive more than 25 million euros every year from nuclear waste producers such as EDF, which has been going on for more than two decades.

This, as well as extensive community involvement, has meant that public sentiment – ​​while still divided – has largely fallen on the side of the project, which will create thousands of jobs in the area, which has seen an economic decline linked to the dwindling fortunes of local metallurgy. industry.

British scientists and policymakers are closely monitoring the situation. Unlike France, the British state is funding the entire GDF project because it is the main waste producer.

This means that a UK GDF can only be created if the geology is suitable, but also if the local community agrees.

Candidate communities in Great Britain currently receive £1 million annually for their participation.

Damien Thieriot, a local politician and forest manager by profession, sees the nuclear project as a lifeline for his ailing hometown, which is attracting young people to other regions due to a lack of prospects.

“I’m not a man of science, but I trust Andra. We have to take care of the waste and I want us to preserve the environment, improve the area, attract people and save my village.”

“I also want the waste producers to bring more to the region, such as solar panel farms and more opportunities.

“The money is certainly important, but it is also about getting something back as a community. It is an opportunity, not just an obligation.”

Leave a Comment