High-level nuclear waste storage degrades faster than thought

Preface. Burying nuclear waste ought to be a top priority, now that it appears peak oil may have happened in November of 2018 (Patterson 2019) and perhaps even sooner if covid-19 crashes the world economy (Tverberg 2020). It won’t happen after oil production peaks, when it is rationed to agriculture and other essential services. Our descendants shouldn’t have to cope with nuclear waste on top of all the other destruction we’re causing in the world.

Alice Friedemann   www.energyskeptic.com  author of “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer, Barriers to Making Algal Biofuels, and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts: Collapse Chronicles, Derrick Jensen, Practical Prepping, KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity , XX2 report

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OSU. 2020. High-level nuclear waste storage materials will likely degrade faster than previously thought. Ohio State University.

Study finds the materials — glass, ceramics and stainless steel — interact to accelerate corrosion.

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, new research shows.

The findings, published today in the journal Nature Materials, 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,” said 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.”

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

But the long-term plan for high-level defense waste disposal and storage around the globe 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 called it “severe.”

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

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, under conditions that 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.

Reference: “Self-accelerated corrosion of nuclear waste forms at material interfaces” by Xiaolei Guo, et al., 27 January 2020, Nature Materials.
DOI: 10.1038/s41563-019-0579-x

References

Patterson, R. 2019. Was 2018 the peak for crude oil production? oilprice.com

Tverberg, G. 2020. Economies won’t be able to recover after shutdowns. ourfiniteworld.com

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10 Responses to High-level nuclear waste storage degrades faster than thought

  1. Kevin M. says:

    We probably should reprocess the waste its not really economical but it will reduce the volume significantly.

    We need to look at energy efficiency using materials that are nontoxic. I recently read a book that suggested using cob construction with some concrete to improve the materials performance and straw as an insulator. We can recycle glass from office buildings to make solar gain greenhouses.

    We needed to get really efficient about 30 or 40 years ago. Educate yourself now to be ready to be part of the solution if and when we enter the energy crisis. Short of an engineering/scientific miracle we are going to have to tear this system down and rebuild a better one with what we can reuse.

    @Fred start local plant a big garden, support permaculture farms or start one, if your in the north build a partially inground greenhouse with a underground geothermal air intake. Read the humanure handbook and be ready for laws and customs to change. The more local and less energy intensive our food system is the better the chances we will have.

    While I think we are in for a rude awakening in terms of our energy use I think we can still find solutions.

    • tehodler says:

      @Kevin M.

      I’d love to know the name of the book about mixing cob with modern materials like concrete.

      • Kevin M. says:

        @Tehodler sorry the writers talk about recycled concrete foundations with cob but the mixing is with rammed earth. The book is The Art of Natural Building second edition. It’s not a hard read and I think anyone who is considering building a structure should give it a read. Tips such as recycled concrete can often be had for free will make it worth your time.

  2. SomeoneInAsia says:

    I would have thought ancient Egypt and premodern China both sustained themselves with agriculture for thousands of years. Could you cite some sources to support your claim in any case?

    • Fred Justesen says:

      How many people did they sustain in premodern China?
      I believe they salted out the Mesopotamia, as they have done already in areas of our modern agriculture today. Most all of north and south America depend on limited water and fertilizer, and pesticides as well as Australia and Europe. Well, lets just say all of modern agriculture.
      I’m not saying we can’t support a population with some form of sustainable agriculture, but not the numbers we have on the planet today. Not even close. It is estimated that it takes 10 calories of fossil fuel to produce 1 calorie of food on the average in the United States today.

    • Susan Butler says:

      SomeoneInAsia is right in that ancient China did support a large population sustainably –by means of much hand labor. See “Farmers of 40 Centuries,” a fascinating book describing how they did it. However, we have better ideas than the old-timers had. See “The Power of Duck,” which describes adding duck and fish to rice paddies. Fred is right in that we are definitely in overshoot. Our present mega-cities arrangements are not sustainable. However, if we spread out and resettle the land, that population could support themselves sustainably, and increase abundance year after year by using regenerative methods. We know how to do this. One question is: How many people do we want living on Earth? This one question raises a lot of other questions. People don’t realize we can have whatever we want –we just have to decide (collectively) what we want. Making this decision might require some species-wide growing up. Such a process is difficult but not impossible.

      • Fred Justesen says:

        The problem with our present modern agriculture system is that we are presently raising crops on land that is not conducive to to growing food by hand labor without large equipment or the climate to support many crops that require a plentiful amount of precipitation, growing season, and natural fertility. It’s my opinion that we have been mining the soil for many decades and are replacing what we have mined with artificial inputs. All of those inputs require a huge amount of fossil fuel. Much of the nitrogen comes directly from fossil fuel and others like phosphate, potassium, and others require mining and transportation. Also, we have to recognize that much of our food production relies on depleting ground water or rivers and streams where the dams have decimated the native fish species. I agree that there are areas in the world that can sustain a certain population sustainably. However, we will have to except massive depopulation of the human species. I believe that the true sustainable model is that of hunters and gatherers. Yes, sustainable food production is possible for a very small portion of todays population, but to have sustainability of food production that will support the present population is a fantasy.

    • David Alven says:

      What level of madness would compare premodern China population numbers to postmodern China population numbers? This assumption is equivalent to stating that people have been driving their SUV’s and produced mountains of non-degradable trash for thousands of years and it hasn’t been a problem so why should it be one now? Is this wilful denial or wilful ignorance or both?

  3. WailCircus says:

    The Civilisation that is built on suspending fundamental senses in humans to survive another day, is Not Civilisation – but rather a Circus of false realities.

    The Nuclear age has miraculously started, coinciding with peak coal in 1913 Britain.

    Brave New World then produced, spreading a new belief that the issue of Energy-scarcity is now solved with the power of the Atom – once for all.

    Then 1984 has been produced, never telling the readers why the big brother is so crazy – if all infinite Energy resources are in his hand?

    Keynes, and all the economists after him, with rare and muted exceptions – never discussed the possibility that the Energy in atoms might not be an excess-energy – at all – building their hyped models on limitless-supplies of Energy.

    The Limits of Growth then came in warning humans that they are running out of water – but not crude oil – that essential for the real Energy-Mix.

    Science, backed by Economics, then started promoting solar and wind energy – never telling humans solar and wind energy is a sub-product of fossil fuels.

    And, science is not telling humans today that Nuclear and Nuclear Fusion are another fossil fuels sub-product.

    And, science is not telling the world that the universe is running at its maximum Energy-potential. Therefore, humans will never be able to manufacture excess Energy – not from atoms, solar, wind, hydro, geothermal, quantum energy, Electric Universe – or you name it.

    In the result, the sense of scarcity in humans has been deliberately suspended by the Western Civilisation since Sadi Carnot in 1824.

    With that, the Western Civilisation has turned itself to an ongoing Circus of false realities.

    The sacrifice is the best of all Energy stores known to man – the one-off, finite fossil fuels.

    Wail.