Keeping Nuclear Waste Out of the Watershed

Body of water

Spent nuclear fuel appears as a simple bundle of metal rods but the processes of storing them safely are necessarily complex. The initial issue addressed in nuclear waste management was the prevention of groundwater contamination; one of the present-day hot topics is how to design a safe and affordable container for the radioactive waste. Until recently, the plan was to encase the spent fuel in steel, then slide it into an even larger copper encasement. The copper metal has excellent corrosion resistance and allows for safe, long-term disposal of the used nuclear fuel. However, Canada does not have the capability to produce the copper casing required for this because we lack the elaborate equipment needed, and thus this would be an expensive component of our nuclear program.

James Noël and David Shoesmith of the Department of Chemistry at Western University lead the Electrochemistry and Corrosion Science Centre where they study the longevity and reliability of alternate copper encasement methods. By either spraying the steel case with copper microparticles or electrocoating it with copper, the group has found novel techniques to safely encase the nuclear fuel, reducing the thickness of the copper needed from 2.5 cm to only 3 mm.

Their respective labs collaborate with other countries around the world with nuclear capacity to achieve the common goal of continued safety of nuclear waste. Dr. Noël recently secured $12 million in funding to examine the safety of waste storage from a multi-dimensional perspective; he now leads a team of metallurgists, synthetic chemists, civil engineers, and microbiologists, all working to test the safety of the containers. This holistic approach to ensuring the safety of nuclear repositories is supported by a combination of institutional and private-sector funding. The long-term goal of this team will be to apply their methods to waste containment across several industries in Canada, including mining and oil extraction. They also collaborate with first nations communities, many of whom are often the hosts for remediation and containment sites.

Results

These new methods eliminate concerns of seams and welds in the casing and can be carried out here in Canada; the total cost savings for the nuclear waste disposal program amount to $3 billion.

Canada continues to model the highest standards for safe handling and storage of nuclear waste and in the often tenuous world of energy politics, nuclear energy remains a robust and reliable base load upon which Canadians can continue to rely.