U.S. DOE racing to “test” Deep Borehole Disposal of highly radioactive wastes (October 2015)

As revealed at a two-day long meeting of the U.S. Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board (NWTRB) on Oct. 21 & 22, 2015 in Washington, D.C., the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) is racing to begin “testing” the concept of Deep Borehole Disposal of highly radioactive wastes, even though most people — including those whose communities could be targeted to “host” such facilities — have not even heard about it yet.

Links to the agenda, NWTRB press release, numerous presentations, and additional materials are now posted at the NWTRB website.

Also, a transcript is supposed to be posted, but it has not been yet. (It is unclear if a video recording of the Webcast will be made available, in addition, or whether that was only viewable in real time.)

By “Deep Borehole Disposal,” the DOE proponents are referring to the concept of drilling a relatively small diameter hole, 3 to 5 kilometers (1.9 to 3.1 miles) straight down into the Earth’s crust, in order to insert radioactive waste containers in the bottom. A common figure discussed at the meeting was 40 containers of radioactive waste, stacked one on top of the other, in the bottom of each Deep Borehole. A field of Deep Boreholes — enough to accommodate all the radioactive waste to be buried — would be drilled in close proximity to each other, in order to economize on the very expensive drilling equipment and skilled personnel required. The Deep Boreholes would then likely (but not for sure — this hasn’t been decided yet) be back-filled with sealant materials, yet to be designed/determined.

While most of the explicit discussion revolved around the potential to bury radioactive cesium and strontium capsules (themselves highly radioactive and long-lasting — Cs-137 and Sr-90 remain hazardous for around 300 to 600 years, as but two examples), the clear implication is that other categories of radioactive wastes, including irradiated nuclear fuel, could also be disposed of this way.

DOE has not only solid irradiated nuclear fuel, but also post-reprocessing high-level radioactive waste, as well as other categories of highly radioactive waste, under its own jurisdiction (from the nuclear weapons complex, research reactors, etc.), to be dealt with. Even disposing of weapons-grade plutonium in Deep Borehole Disposal was discussed.

In addition, DOE is still being looked to at this time as the agency responsible for carrying out commercial nuclear power irradiated nuclear fuel disposal, as well as commercial Greater Than Class C (GTCC) “low-level” radioactive waste disposal (GTCC is considered as radioactively hazardous as high-level radioactive waste, and is in line for deep geologic disposal).

Since all of the categories of radioactive waste lack ultimate disposal sites, it is fair to be concerned that DOE could be considering Deep Borehole Disposal as an option for one or more of those wastes streams.

Such Deep Borehole Disposal could take place on-site, where the radioactive wastes were generated in the first place, or at unspecified “remote locations.”

While DOE hastened to say that the initial testing would not involve radioactive materials, DOE spokesmen did admit that a suitable site, initially only involved in non-radioactive testing, could then proceed to become an actual Deep Borehole Disposal radioactive waste dump.

As with past proposed DOE high-level radioactive waste dumps, like at Yucca Mountain, Nevada, or centralized interim storage (de facto permanent parking lot dumps), targeted sites for Deep Borehole Disposal could well include Native American lands and reservations, already badly contaminated DOE nuclear weapons complex facilities, and/or nuclear power plant sites themselves.

This is most disconcerting, especially considering DOE’s rush to begin “testing” this largely to entirely unknown (to the public anyway) Deep Borehole Disposal concept. The two-day NWTRB meeting revealed clearly that many, even basic questions and concerns about the risks of Deep Borehole Disposal, have not yet been asked, let alone addressed.

As Beverly Fernandez of Stop the Great Lakes Nuclear Dump put it at the Oct. 6, 2015 Toronto town hall meeting on Ontario Power Generation’s proposal to bury radioactive wastes on the Great Lakes shoreline at Bruce Nuclear Generating Station in Kincardine, Ontario, assurances made that so-called “deep geologic repositories” (DGR) at Asse II and Morsleben in Germany, and the Waste Isolation Pilot Project (WIPP) in New Mexico, proved false. All three DGRs have leaked hazardous radioactivity into the environment. So DGR proponents’ “trust us, we’re experts” line has worn quite thin.

Note that the so-called “Deep” Geologic Repository at Bruce would be only 680 meters (2,230 feet) below ground. Significantly, if OPG’s on-site radioactive waste “DGR” disposal is allowed to happen, it could set a precedent for Deep Borehole Disposal of radioactive wastes (including high-level radioactive wastes) on-site at other reactor sites to follow, as well.

[This is posted online at: http://www.beyondnuclear.org/radioactive-waste-whatsnew/2015/10/22/doe-racing-to-test-deep-borehole-disposal-of-highly-radioact.html]

Beyond Nuclear aims to educate and activate the public about the connections between nuclear power and nuclear weapons and the need to abandon both to safeguard our future. Beyond Nuclear advocates for an energy future that is sustainable, benign and democratic.

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