Czech scientists testing safety of radioactive waste containers

Scientists at a university in Liberec are investigating the possible impact of microorganisms on the safety of an underground radioactive waste repository, which should be built in Czechia in several decades’ time. The main focus of their research is the impact of bacteria on radioactive waste containers.

According to a deadline set by the European Commission, nuclear powers stations in EU member states should have waste repositories in place by 2050. While Czechia is still searching for the right location for such a repository, scientists are carrying out tests in this area.

Experts at the Institute for Nanomaterials, Advanced Technologies and Innovations at the Technical University of Liberec are currently undertaking research focusing on microbial corrosion that could disrupt the container in which the radioactive waste is stored.

They are also looking at the effect of microorganisms on bentonite, a type of clay in which the waste will be stored. Scientists are studying the processes over a period of several months, and based on the results, simulating a process that could take hundreds of thousands of years, explains one of the researchers, Kateřina Černá:

“We are mainly looking at the issue of microbial corrosion. We are also looking at whether the bentonite - which is the clay that seals the entire repository - could be degraded by bacteria. In other words, whether bacteria could harm the bentonite in any way.”

Photo: Tomáš Mařas,  Czech Radio

The material is kept in a tightly sealed glovebox and has to be handled with special caution. Veronika Hlaváčková, another member on the research team, says the research focuses on extreme conditions:

“We do one experiment for maybe two years. We simulate extreme conditions and see if it has an effect. If we don't see any big changes even in extreme conditions, then we can approximate it for the future.”

Scientists from Liberec University are collaborating on the research with the Czech Technical University in Prague, the Radioactive Waste Repository Administration and the Nuclear Research Institute in Řež near Prague. Kateřina Černá outlines the first results of the testing:

“We know what the storage package will look like. We are still verifying its parameters in partial experiments. We already have the prototype and now we are refining how thick a layer of bentonite we need. We know it is a good sealing layer.”

Czechia has been looking for a permanent nuclear waste storage facility that could house thousands of tons of waste produced by the country’s nuclear power stations since the 1990s.

According to the Radioactive Waste Repository Authority, the 500meter deep repository is technically possible to build in the country within a time horizon of several decades.

The organizations has proposed four areas for this purpose: Janoch near Temelín, Horka near Třebíč, Hrádek near Jihlava, and Březový potok near Klatovy. At the moment, the spent fuel from nuclear units is stored in warehouses on the premises of power plants.