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Nuclear waste storage sites in rock salt may be more vulnerable than previously thought via Science blog

Research from The University of Texas at Austin shows that rock salt, used by Germany and the United States as a subsurface container for radioactive waste, might not be as impermeable as thought or as capable of isolating nuclear waste from groundwater in the event that a capsule or storage vessel failed.

A team of researchers from the university has used field testing and 3-D micro-CT imaging of laboratory experiments to show that rock salt can become permeable. Their findings, published in the Nov. 27 issue of Science, has implications for oil and gas operations, and, most notably, nuclear waste storage. The team includes researchers from the university’s Cockrell School of Engineering and Jackson School of Geosciences.

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Although this work was originally motivated by the desire to evaluate rock salt as a hydrocarbon reservoir seal for the oil industry, the conclusions may have important implications for nuclear waste storage. Previous work on salt permeability has focused on the cracks induced by the creation of the nuclear waste repository itself. The observations reported by the study, however, demonstrate that undisturbed rock salt can become permeable.

“The critical takeaway is that salt can develop permeability, even in absence of mining activity,” said assistant professor Marc A. Hesse of the Jackson School’s Department of Geological Sciences. “Further work is necessary to study the quantity of flow that can occur.”

The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, in Carlsbad, New Mexico, stores low-level nuclear waste in salt beds beneath the ground. However, high-level waste from the nation’s nuclear energy sector is stored at the power plants in pools or dry casks, methods that are considered temporary solutions. For decades there has been a proposal to build a permanent central repository under Nevada’s Yucca Mountains, but that proposal has stalled because of political and regulatory hurdles. This has renewed interest in rock salt as an alternative permanent storage solution for high-level nuclear waste. In this context, the findings of the team from UT Austin provide a timely reminder that rock salt is a dynamic material over long timescales.

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