Using X-ray light from Diamond, Sam Shaw, Kath Morris, Carolyn Pearce, and Richard Pattrick from the University of Manchester, and Claire Corkhill and her team from the University of Sheffield are looking at different but interrelated aspects of geological disposal.
On one of Diamond’s spectroscopy beamlines, B18, Kath and Sam work to understand radioactive contamination of the environment both inside and surrounding the disposal facility. They are studying how radionuclides, including transuranic materials, which arise from nuclear processes, combine and interact at the atomic level with natural minerals and microbes in the earth. In order to protect the surrounding environment, we have to understand the impact that radioactivity in the waste could have as the disposal facility gradually evolves over tens of thousands of years.
And that brings us to the next challenge: how can you even engineer a facility capable of containing waste safely for this long? What structures and what materials should you use? Richard, Carolyn, and Claire all study atomic-level reactions and changes in the buffer materials used in geological disposal facilities. Richard and Carolyn’s work on I18 focuses on atomic level radiation damage to the clay that goes into the buffers. They measure structural changes in the clay as the individual atoms change over time. Over on I11, Diamond’s high resolution powder diffraction beamline, Claire is working with a different buffer material: cement. She studies how this material reacts with water, but her experiment is a bit unusual. Instead of looking at her sample over a period of seconds, hours or weeks, Claire is measuring reactions and interactions in the same sample of cement as it becomes hydrated over a period of two years. Examining changes over this extended period should make it easier to predict what might happen over a much longer time.
The science that these researchers are undertaking is innovative its own right. But Kath, Sam, Carolyn, Richard, and Claire also share the excitement of knowing that they are working within a much bigger network of researchers across the country. Together, these scientists are helping the UK get its geological disposal facility off – or should we say, under – the ground.
A disposal solution with a seriously long-term guarantee: it’s an ambitious undertaking. The range of work taking place at Diamond demonstrates the huge part science has to play in helping the UK to put the pieces of this intricate puzzle together. There’s no doubt that radioactive waste disposal is a real challenge, but science is bringing us closer to finding a solution, once and for all.