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Ewing leads delegation to China's proposed nuclear waste site

Rod Ewing, chairman of the federal Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board, recently led a delegation of five board members and staff to China to learn about Beijing’s efforts to develop a deep-mined geologic repository for high-level radioactive waste.

During the visit to Beijing, the delegation met with officials at the China Atomic Energy Authority (CAEA) and the Ministry of Environmental Protection (MoEP). They also met with scientist and engineers at four scientific organizations and research institutes: the Chinese National Nuclear Organization (CNNC), Beijing Research Institute for Uranium Geology (BRIUG), the China National Nuclear Engineering Company (CNPE), and the Chinese Institute for Atomic Energy (CIAE).

“We had very complete summary presentations of the Chinese approach to nuclear waste management and the status of their present research and siting program for a geologic repository for high-level nuclear waste,” said Ewing, who is a senior fellow at FSI and CISAC’s Frank Stanton Professor in Nuclear Security.

Ewing was appointed by President Barack Obama in 2012 to serve as the chair of the Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board, which is responsible for the technical review of Department of Energy activities related to transporting, packaging, storing and disposing of spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste.

The delegation had an extended discussion with Xu Dazhe, Ewing’s counterpart as chairman of the CAEA. The visit in Beijing ended with a full-day technical exchange between scientists and engineers from both countries, as well as participants from institutes outside of Beijing and members of the NWTRB

The U.S. delegation visited a museum of uranium mineral, including a specimen of the first uranium ore discovered in Guangxi in 1954. The specimen had been presented to Chairman Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai – marking the beginning of China’s nuclear industry.

The delegation heads to the remote northwestern region of Beishan to see China's proposed site for a nuclear waste repository.
Photo Credit: Rod Ewing

The delegation then traveled to Beishan to examine the granite host rock in the remote northwestern Gansu Province, which is a potential site for an underground research laboratory and geologic repository for nuclear waste.

“Both countries can learn from one another, saving time and money for each country,” said Ewing, a professor of Geological and Environmental Sciences in the School of Earth Sciences at Stanford. “Nuclear waste management is an international effort in which cooperation is essential.”

China is pursing an aggressive campaign to expand its nuclear energy capacity and as part of an effort to meet growing energy demands, as well as to reduce air pollution from coal-fired plants. There are some 20 nuclear power reactors in China and another 28 under construction, according to the World Nuclear Association.

China has a policy of reprocessing its nuclear fuel and will be disposing of vitrified, high-level radioactive waste. The U.S. delegation was particularly interested in work on the properties of the vitrified waste in a disposal environment and understanding the Chinese strategy for disposal of HLW in a granitic host rock.

The Chinese are investigating a number of sites in granite in the Beishan region, located along the ancient Silk Road. Once a suitable site is located, the first step would be to establish an underground research laboratory for detailed scientific and engineering studies that will be required for a final geologic repository.

Mary Lou Zoback, a seismologist and consulting professor in the Geophysics Department at Stanford, was one of five board members on the trip. She was impressed that China intends to take five years to build an underground research laboratory and then conduct 20 years of testing before opening a repository.

The United States has been stalled for years in its proposed plan to build a similar deep geological repository for spent nuclear reactor fuel and radioactive waste at Yucca Mountain, adjacent to the Nevada Test Site. Environmentalists and local residents have opposed the project – factors that China routinely ignores.

“I think the most valuable thing in making the visit to China and visiting the site is really to gain an understanding of their program and also their general philosophy toward siting what, in this country, has been an extremely controversial project,” Zoback said. “They chose a remote area and they really haven’t even consulted with any of the surrounding towns – and that’s not what we do here. But I was extremely impressed that they recognized the need for this lab and would allow 20 years for all the scientific investigation that would be carried out to make sure it was safe.”

The Beishan region has five granitic sites that are being investigated as potential host rocks for the underground laboratory and possible repository. Board members discussed the geology and characteristics of the site with Chinese scientists and examined rock core and data that have been generated by their research program.

In addition to detailed investigations of granite, the Chinese also consider clay as a medium for a geologic repository and very deep borehole disposal, reaching proposed depths of up to 3 miles. One of the important issues is the methodology for the comparison of sites within a single type of geology or across different types of geology. The U.S. has a wide variety of geologies that may be suitable for disposal, including granite, clay, salt and volcanic tuff.

“The U.S. approach can be informed by the Chinese strategy,” Ewing said.

You can see more photos on the CNNC website.