BGS radioactive waste research

BGS has been involved in the radioactive waste disposal research in the UK and internationally since the mid-1950s. As a public sector, not-for-profit organisation BGS advises the UK government on a range of aspects of geoscience as well as providing impartial geological advice to industry, academia and the public. We also undertake research on behalf of a number of international waste management organisations and have provided geological data and interpretations concerning the safe storage and disposal of radioactive waste for nearly 70 years.

The research we undertake is scientifically independent and impartial. It is subject to peer-review and is intended to better inform debate and decisions about the siting of a repository for radioactive waste in the UK and elsewhere. It achieves this through improved understanding and knowledge of the physical, chemical and biological processes that affect the properties of the rocks, how the rocks interact with the engineered components of a repository and change over long periods of time, up to one million years in the future.

MoU

BGS has entered a memorandum of understanding (MoU) agreement with Radioactive Waste Management (RWM) to inform the UK’s geological disposal programme. The two independent organisations jointly published a five-year agreement in June 2020, that sets out a framework for collaborative work at strategic, technical and operational levels. The collaboration between both organisations is intended to support improved environmental outcomesrelating to the UK’s Geological Disposal Facility (GDF).


Research facilities and capabilities

BGS radioactive waste disposal research encompasses a broad spectrum of capabilities. The expertise and laboratory capabilities are used to gain a better understanding of how physical, chemical and biological processes affect the physical properties of the rocks and being considered to host a disposal facility and the engineered materials used to surround the waste canisters underground over long timescales, up to hundreds of thousands of years.

Site selection and characterisation

It is internationally accepted that placing higher activity radioactive waste deep underground puts it far beyond the reach of humans, locking it away from the biosphere so it is safe and secure. The rock plays an important role in shielding people and the surface environment we live in from radiation and, depending on the rock type will either limit or completely prevent radioactivity from reaching the surface

We contribute independent geoscientific advice and expertise to inform the selection and characterisation of rocks being considered and the properties of the wider geological environment. We also undertake research to predict how tectonic and climatic processes, such as future glaciations, may impact a facility in the future.

Research areas include:

Narrow gas pathways in a fracture visualisation test

Fluid movement through low permeability materials and coupled deformation

Analysing the transport of gas and water through low permeability materials is an important aspect into research on the geological disposal of radioactive waste. This research is predominantly carried out within the Transport Properties Research Laboratory (TPRL). Specifically designed experimental set-ups are used to analyse, at a high resolution, fluid flow (water or gas) and associated deformation of these low permeability materials. These materials can range from naturally occurring clays or shales, to man-made engineered barriers. Further detail on the current research projects being performed in the TPRL laboratory can be found here.
Lead: Jon Harrington

Schematic diagram of a flow test in compacted bentonite containing steel wires. The influence of microbiology on the bentonite/steel interface has been studied in detail as part of the Microbiology in Nuclear waste Disposal (MIND) project

The role of microbes in deep geological disposal

The geomicrobiology laboratory works with collaborates with internal and external experts to delivery multidisciplinary research aimed at understanding the potential for the survival and activity of microorganisms in geological disposal facilities. We design bespoke experimental laboratory programmes that allow us to monitor microbiology in geological disposal facility conditions. Further details about current research in the geomicrobiology laboratory, and our facilities can be found here.
Lead: Simon Gregory

Modelling of future temperature trends and the impact that will have on permafrost thickness. Changes in the depth of any permafrost may have the potential to change groundwater flow around a potential repository

Groundwater modelling and data flows

We have a dedicated team of physical hydrogeologists and geochemists as well as groundwater flow and, thermal and solute transport modellers who have expertise in providing information to inform safety cases for the storage and disposal of nuclear waste as well as the clean-up of legacy sites. We develop site conceptual models of groundwater flow and radionuclide transport, investigate groundwater and geochemical interactions in legacy sites and undertake integration of conceptual and numerical models from regional to site scales.
We undertake work for site owners and regulators both in the UK and internationally.
Leads: Andrew Hughes (Groundwater)
Johanna Scheidegger (Permafrost)

BGS scientists using the 3D immersive visualisation suite. Large amounts of geological data, for example maps, boreholes and seismic studies have been used to create a 3D geological model of Great Britain

Site selection and characterisation: the UK

As the UK’s national geoscientific body, we work closely with relevant government bodies (such as Radioactive Waste Management (part of the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority) and the Environment Agency) to fulfil a key role in the future selection and sub-surface characterisation of a site for the UK GDF. We consider the provision of authoritative and impartial geoscientific input to the UK programme part of our public good role. It enables our world-leading UK applied geo-environmental research to objectively contribute to overcoming the challenges of delivering a GDF for UK higher activity radioactive wastes. Information about the current UK site selection programme can be found here: https://geologicaldisposal.campaign.gov.uk/.
Lead: Fiona McEvoy

Secondary Electron Microscope image showing trace of gold nano particles used in a gas injection test carried out on a clay-rich mudrock in the Transport Properties Research Laboratory (Harrington et al., 2012)

Petrology and mineralogical characterisation of geomaterials

We are a team of mineralogists and petrologists with expertise in characterising a wide variety of natural, experimental and engineered materials being considered for a radioactive waste disposal facility. This includes metals such as copper, steel and titanium, bentonite clays, cements, glass, geopolymers and rocks. We work closely with experimental scientists such as engineers, microbiologists and geoscientists in designing laboratory and full scale experimental programmes and analysing and interpreting the results.
We utilise a range of analytical techniques including optical microscopy, scanning electron microscopy including STEM and cryo, digital and etch-track autoradiography as well as linking to other BGS facilities such as the core scanning facility, X-ray diffusion, TGA and BET, inorganic chemistry facilities including ICP and ICP-MS, ion chromatography and mercury porosimetry. Other externally available techniques are also utilised including Diamond Light Source and NMR.
Our work spans the deep and surface disposal community as well as those responsible for waste packaging and investigation of and clean-up of radioactive contaminated sites.
Lead: Lorraine Field

South West England

National Geological Screening

In support of the current UK geological disposal siting programme, BGS were commissioned to independently undertake desk based studies compiling existing publicly available geoscientific information about England, Wales and Northern Ireland. This is referred to as the National Geological Screening exercise. The outcome of the exercise is a series of 13 reports corresponding to the BGS Regional Guide series. Each report describes geological features relevant to the safety requirements of a geological disposal facility emplaced onshore and up to 20 km offshore at depths between 200 and 1000 m from surface.

RiftVolc

Long term tectonic and climatic processes

BGS has a long track record studying Earth processes such as plate tectonics and associated seismicity and volcanism. Climatic driven processes, such as glaciations, also impact the earth and its surface. Waste emplaces in a deep geological disposal facility will remain radioactive for up to a million years. We undertake research and predictive modelling of those tectonic and climatic processes that have the potential to affect a disposal facility over such long timescales.

Core racker at work

National Geological Repository and core scanning facility

The National Geological Repository (NGR) houses geological material, collected since the early days of the Survey in 1835, and now includes over 600 km of drillcore. As part of this collection, it also houses the core from 30 deep boreholes which was obtained as part of the extensive Nirex geological investigations for a deep geological disposal site in the 1990s
A new state-of-the art core scanning facility in the NGR provides geophysical, mineralogical, and geochemical characteristics of a drillcore. This includes high-definition optical and ultraviolet (UV) imaging, as well as X-ray fluorescence, X-ray computed tomography reconstructions, geophysical analyses, including gamma density, magnetic susceptibility, non-contact electrical resistivity, P-wave velocity, colour spectrophotometry (including NIR), and natural gamma activity. These techniques minimise the need for destructive sampling and enable scientists to target specific areas of interest for effective sub-sampling procedures.

Contact Fiona McEvoy for more information.