Storing Waste in Ceramic

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Not all the nuclear waste destined for Yucca Mountain is in the form of spent fuel. Some of it will be radioactive waste generated from the production of nuclear weapons. This so-called defense waste exists mainly as corrosive liquids and sludge in underground tanks. An essential task of the U.S. high-level radioactive waste program is to process these defense wastes into a solid material--called a waste form. An ideal waste form would be extremely durable and unreactive with other repository materials. It would be simple to fabricate remotely so that it could be safely transported to a repository for permanent ... continued below

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PDF-file: 17 pages; size: 1.5 Mbytes

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Bourcier, W. L. & Sickafus, K. July 20, 2004.

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Description

Not all the nuclear waste destined for Yucca Mountain is in the form of spent fuel. Some of it will be radioactive waste generated from the production of nuclear weapons. This so-called defense waste exists mainly as corrosive liquids and sludge in underground tanks. An essential task of the U.S. high-level radioactive waste program is to process these defense wastes into a solid material--called a waste form. An ideal waste form would be extremely durable and unreactive with other repository materials. It would be simple to fabricate remotely so that it could be safely transported to a repository for permanent storage. What's more, the material should be able to tolerate exposure to intense radiation without degradation. And to minimize waste volume, the material must be able to contain high concentrations of radionuclides. The material most likely to be used for immobilization of radioactive waste is glass. Glasses are produced by rapid cooling of high-temperature liquids such that the liquid-like non-periodic structure is preserved at lower temperatures. This rapid cooling does not allow enough time for thermodynamically stable crystalline phases (mineral species) to form. In spite of their thermodynamic instability, glasses can persist for millions of years. An alternate to glass is a ceramic waste form--an assemblage of mineral-like crystalline solids that incorporate radionuclides into their structures. The crystalline phases are thermodynamically stable at the temperature of their synthesis; ceramics therefore tend to be more durable than glasses. Ceramic waste forms are fabricated at temperatures below their melting points and so avoid the danger of handling molten radioactive liquid--a danger that exists with incorporation of waste in glasses. The waste form provides a repository's first line of defense against release of radionuclides. It, along with the canister, is the barrier in the repository over which we have the most control. When a waste form is designed, the atomic environment of the radionuclides is chosen to maximize chemical durability. Elements such as zirconium and phosphorus can be included in the waste form that react with and make some radionuclides less soluble and therefore less likely to be released. The long-term performance assessment of radionuclide containment requires the development of models for each part of the barrier system. It is almost certainly easier to model the corrosion and alteration of waste forms than it is to develop coupled hydrologic, chemical, and geophysical models of radionuclide transport away from a repository. Therefore, much time and effort has been spent optimizing the chemical durability of both glass and ceramic waste forms for radionuclide containment. This has not been an easy task. Three problems in particular posed the greatest challenges. The first is that radionuclides decay, transmuting into daughter elements that may have different chemical properties. These new elements might degrade the existing mineral by making it unstable. A good waste form that works well for uranium may work poorly for lead, its final decay product. The second problem is that the radioactive decay itself damages the solid over time. Radioactive decay is an energetic process in which ejected particles and the recoiling nucleus disrupt the surrounding atoms. A single alpha-decay event can displace thousands of atoms in the surrounding volume. We know from laboratory measurements that radionuclides are more easily released from radiation-damaged structures than from materials that do not sustain radiation damage. The third problem is that radioactive waste, particularly the high level waste from reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel to extract plutonium and uranium, contains a variety of elements with widely varying chemistry. The waste form must incorporate the radionuclides, as well as non-radioactive elements such as silicon and sodium that are present in the waste stream as a result of waste processing. A number of ceramic waste forms have been developed that minimize these problems and provide a potentially useful host for radionuclides. For ceramics, the mineralogy can be tailored to the waste stream by selecting solid mineral phases with structural sites that can accommodate the waste elements, as well as newly formed radioactive decay elements. Radiation damage can be minimized by selecting mineral phases that allow atoms to renew or regain their original crystalline structure, a process known as annealing. For example, actinide phosphate minerals anneal more readily than actinide silicate minerals. Despite the superior thermodynamic stability of crystalline materials, borosilicate glasses have become the preferred waste forms. One reason is that the processing technologies associated with this glass are believed to be easier to adapt to handling highly radioactive material.

Physical Description

PDF-file: 17 pages; size: 1.5 Mbytes

Source

  • Uncertainty Underground: Yucca Mountain and the Nation's High-Level Nuclear Waste, Storing Waste in Ceramic, The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA 2006, pp. 365-378

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  • Report No.: UCRL-BOOK-205797
  • Grant Number: W-7405-ENG-48
  • Office of Scientific & Technical Information Report Number: 897976
  • Archival Resource Key: ark:/67531/metadc880456

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  • July 20, 2004

Added to The UNT Digital Library

  • Sept. 22, 2016, 2:13 a.m.

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  • Oct. 7, 2016, 5:59 p.m.

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Bourcier, W. L. & Sickafus, K. Storing Waste in Ceramic, book, July 20, 2004; Livermore, California. (digital.library.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metadc880456/: accessed September 25, 2017), University of North Texas Libraries, Digital Library, digital.library.unt.edu; crediting UNT Libraries Government Documents Department.