Inside the French countryside teaching Britain how to dispose of nuclear waste

An underground labyrinth of tunnels being built in France’s picturesque Champagne countryside is helping to teach British scientists how to dispose of nuclear waste.

Several countries around the world are building geological disposal facilities (GDFs) deep underground to permanently contain the radioactive nuclear waste created from power plants, nuclear weapons production, submarines, medical equipment and more.

France has an underground laboratory dedicated to this purpose that is more than 1,600 feet below the wooded border of the Meuse and Haute-Marne regions in a layer of Jurassic clay that dates back more than 160 million years.

Britain is about 20 years behind the French project and plans to build its own £53 billion version 0.6 miles under the North Sea or Irish Sea, and about 12 miles off the coast of Cumbria or Lincolnshire.

The project is essential to the long-term viability of nuclear power and is set to be the largest infrastructure project in British history.

It needs local community agreement and perfect geology before it can begin.

Among the vineyards, chateaux and stunning roads of the north-eastern French hinterland is a 740-acre site owned by Andra, France’s national radioactive waste management agency, which will be transformed into a GDF called Cigeo in the coming years. open in 2035.

The Telegraph had exclusive access to the laboratory where hundreds of experiments are being carried out to see how the rock copes with tunneling and its suitability to hide thousands of tonnes of hot and highly radioactive nuclear waste.

In a hard hat, steel boots and overalls, Jacques Moille, a scientist at the Cigeo site, revealed that the first ever experimental disposal site for intermediate level nuclear waste is almost complete.

The prototype is a cave 32 feet high and 262 feet long that was created with the help of a former coal mine excavator used in Britain 60 years ago.

An area on the French site for very low-level waste and non-nuclear waste

Deep underground geological disposal facilities to permanently contain radioactive nuclear waste – Paul Grover for the Telegraph

The site is the first life-cycle prototype in clay for this type of nuclear waste, mostly spent fuel from nuclear power plants.

The site also has two dozen 22″ wide boreholes for disposal of intermediate level long-life wastes.

The most dangerous waste produced, which will be stored on site, emits 145 sieverts (Sv) of radiation per hour. Exposure to a few sieverts is fatal to humans.

Cigeo is of particular interest to the UK’s Nuclear Waste Services (NWS) organization which is tasked with disposing of the UK’s 70-year-old stockpile of nuclear waste because it is built in rock as seen in Britain.

Professor Neil Hyatt, the chief scientific adviser at NWS, told the Telegraph: “Everything we learn from colleagues in France can help speed up our own timeline and keep our own costs down, and maximize safety.

“Visits to Cigeo and sharing the data can help us understand not only the geology and science, but also the practical aspects of how to build what will be the UK’s biggest ever infrastructure project.”

The French site recently applied for a license to begin construction of its facility, which will be adjacent to the current laboratory in the Champagne region.

A 2.5 mile long underground railway will carry packages of waste underground in special barrels and underground robots will then move the packages around the tunnels.

The highest waste will be in 35in wide tunnels, which must spend 70 years cooling to no more than 90C before it can be buried underground, before they are sealed.

Intermediate level waste will be stored in larger tunnels like the prototype currently under construction and the final product will be 32 feet across and 1,300 feet long.

Jacques Delay, scientist, at the Cigeo site, the first ever experimental disposal site for intermediate level nuclear wasteJacques Delay, scientist, at the Cigeo site, the first ever experimental disposal site for intermediate level nuclear waste

The highest waste must spend 70 years cooling to a maximum of 90C before it can be buried – Paul Grover for the Telegraph

Hundreds of experiments have been conducted over the lab’s two decades, with thousands of holes drilled and thousands of sensors installed.

Investigations covered everything from earth compression, absorption of radiation through soil, and how heat transfers through rocks.

The UK’s GDF is expected to open in the 2050s and is estimated to contain around 27 million cubic feet of waste – the equivalent of 10,000 double-decker buses.

It will take 15 years to select a site and another 15 years to complete the effort. It will operate there for more than a century.

The scale of the project is huge, and timelines are being planned that span several generations.

For example, scientists and engineers have been working to ensure the safety of the site for around 300,000 years – as long as human civilization has existed, which is the time required for the radioactivity to decay safely.

A new nuclear power plant is planned in North Wales, as well as Sizewell in Suffolk and Hinkley in Somerset, respectively, and the Government has pledged to triple nuclear power generation by 2050.

GDF is extremely important for the safety and viability of nuclear power, according to experts.

Professor Hyatt, who has two decades of experience in industry and academia, told the Telegraph: “Building a safe, secure and permanent disposal facility is critical to a long-term nuclear strategy and presents one of the most challenging more in the modern world.

“GDF is the only viable and permanent solution to hazardous waste and will bring thousands of jobs and millions of pounds into a region every year for generations.”

The Conservatives and Labor are understood to support the project, and scientists say there is no viable alternative.

Sellafield currently stores most of the high and intermediate level waste intended for the GDF, but the site is almost full and requires ongoing repairs.

Jacques Delay, scientist, at the Cigeo site, the first ever experimental disposal site for intermediate level nuclear wasteJacques Delay, scientist, at the Cigeo site, the first ever experimental disposal site for intermediate level nuclear waste

Cigeo is of interest to the Nuclear Waste Services (NWS) organization tasked with disposing of the UK’s 70-year-old stockpile of nuclear waste – Paul Grover for the Telegraph

Insight from French colleagues is invaluable to the British effort as the Jurassic clay of the French project is identical to the rocks under the North Sea off the Lincolnshire coast.

“The proposed Lincolnshire GDF site has the same clay as the French site,” Professor Hyatt said.

“The geology of Cumbria is around 100 million years older and we are also investigating its suitability there with studies which started last year.”

Nuclear waste producers, such as EDF, have been paying more than €25 million a year to the two local communities in French regions affected by the work, which has been ongoing for more than two decades .

Because of this, as well as extensive community participation, public opinion – although still divided – is largely falling on the side of the project which will create thousands of jobs in the area where the economy is in decline due to the local metallurgy has declined. industry.

British scientists and policy makers are paying close attention. Unlike France, the UK state is banking on the whole GDF project because it is the main producer of waste.

This means that a UK GDF can only be created if the geology is suitable, but also if the local community agrees.

Candidate communities in the UK are currently given £1 million per year for their participation.

Damien Thieriot, a local politician and forest manager by trade, sees the nuclear project as a rescue for his ailing hometown, which is bleeding young people to other regions due to a lack of prospects.

“I’m not a man of science but I trust Andra. We have to take care of the waste, and I wish us every success in preserving the environment, improving the area, attracting people and saving my village.”

“I also want the waste producers to bring more to the region as well, such as solar panel farms and more opportunities.

“The money is important, sure, but it’s also about making sure that you, as a community, get something back. It’s an opportunity, not just an obligation.”

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