This project seems to be a piece of a science fiction story at first sight
Russian Minister for Nuclear Power Alexander Rumyantsev acknowledged during his recent visit to Helsinki that Finland left Russia behind in the field of technologies to handle the spent nuclear fuel and radioactive wastes. Scientists of the nuclear power and Greenpeace activists have been arguing for years regarding the spent fuel issue, whether it is supposed to be imported or not, processed or buried. It is a good thing to study foreign colleagues experience. However, there is a very interesting project in Russia about a way to get rid of the radioactive garbage.
This project seems to be a piece of a science fiction story at first sight, since it suggests taking nuclear wastes hundreds of kilometers deep in the Earth. According to the project, there is no need to drill an extremely deep well for it: a hundred tons of radioactive wastes can be placed in a tungsten ball several meters in diameter. This construction will get heated up to the temperature of 1,200 degrees Celcius itself. The temperature to melt rocks is a lot lower, so the ball will simply drown in the ground like a stone in the water.
This project is called a "Hot Drop," it was born in the Institute of Theoretical Physics more than 30 years ago. The project was developed by Aleksey Byalko and Igor Khalatnikov. Ecologists were first to express their reaction about a new idea. They claimed that there was no guarantee to prevent from an explosion of the ball with nuclear wastes inside. Even without an explosion, ecologists said, the radiation would be too high. They concluded that no country in the world would agree to let such a thing happen on their territory.
Physicists decided to amend the project. They suggested drilling a well of 20 centimeters in diameter, exploding a small bomb at the depth of several kilometers in order to make a cavity of up to five meters. Scientists said that nuclear wastes could be then placed in that cavity. Wastes would get heated up and then leak deep down under the ground. There are no ground waters at a large depth, which excludes an opportunity for the spent nuclear fuel to surface.
What is a way to shove a hundred tons of spent fuel into a hole of 20 centimeters? Wastes are supposed to be packed in small capsules. A part of capsules is to be filled with neutron absorbers in order to prevent an uncontrollable chain reaction to occur deep under the ground.
Scientists were praised for such progress. However, it suddenly became known that the idea was already suggested before by two French secret physicists at a closed NATO meeting at the end of the 1950s. However, it was just a discussion, and nothing more followed afterwards. Furthermore, Russian scientists chose another way to go too.
Current events with the spent nuclear fuel and radioactive wastes remind a warfare with the participation of several sides at once. The brief description of the situation is as follows:
The Russian Ministry for Nuclear Power dreams to earn a lot of money on the import of the spent fuel. For the time being, they deliver the spent nuclear fuel to Russia from Bulgaria ($620 per one kilo) and Ukraine ($350 per kilo). Negotiations with Hungary are under way. Last year the Ministry for Nuclear Power earned $50 million on that - one-fourth of the profit was spent on regional ecological programs. That does not really matter, though. Eighty percent of the spent nuclear fuel in the world is controlled by the United States. England and France are the two major countries on the market of nuclear fuel processing. Japan processes spent fuel too.
It is not hard to get into that layout. According to unofficial information, Americans dropped a hint to Russian nuclear scientists: if Russia stopped dealing with the project of the nuclear power plant in Iraq's Busher, Russia would be allowed to earn some money. Greenpeace activists arranged actions of protest on the Red Square and set up workgroups together with the Nuclear Power Ministry to analyze all the details of the spent fuel import.
Those are all local battles, though. It is more important to realize the development of the nuclear technology. The Russian Ministry for Nuclear Power stands for the so-called closed fuel cycle. As a matter of fact, other countries that use nuclear technologies go along the same direction. They extract plutonium from spent fuel of a nuclear power plant. The extracted plutonium is then used at a plant again, while the remaining part of the spent fuel is stored until it is possible to perform the so-called industrial transmutation: high-level waste form is turned to low-level one in special reactors.
Scientists have been studying the nuclear transmutation for almost a quarter of a century, but it has not been practiced in the industry yet: too expensive. This way or other, wastes keep coming, and there is still a problem of their utilization.
Russia's only factory Mayak to process and bury nuclear wastes is situated on the outskirts of the town of Ozyorsk. The reactor, which produced plutonium for the first Soviet A-bomb was built at that factory. They melt glass in a furnace there, add high-level wastes and then cool that, producing semi-transparent cylinders. After that, they put glass cylinders in metal containers and cover them with concrete. At the end of the process, they put concrete blocks under the ground.
This seems to be a fine method to use. However, the Mayak factory has been working for 25 years already: its equipment is outdated and no repairs will solve the problem. The Ministry for Nuclear Power has a problem to reconstruct Mayak, but there is no money to implement it. In addition to that, one should take account of the sad experience that foreign colleagues have been through.
The United States once spent a billion dollars for the construction of such a storage. After they put the first batch of spent fuel in it, an earthquake occurred, and everything was ruined. Later on, Americans decided to build a nuclear burial ground with a safety guarantee for a period of 100,000 years. The burial ground was supposed to house about 90,000 tons of spent fuel - everything that has been saved in the States during 50 years of the nuclear technology. They chose a suitable mountain on the spot of the former nuclear test ground in Nevada. The mountain was as solid and strong as a safe. However, the government of the state did not hurry to make a decision about the project. They believed that a nuclear dump would scare rich gamblers of Las Vegas off, so they invited independent experts from Russia, although it seems to be a strange thing to happen.
Russian geologist Yury Dublyansky proved that the chosen mountain did not guarantee the 100 percent security for storing nuclear wastes for geological and climate reasons. Climate and tectonics can undergo a drastic change during 100,000 years. The Russian Ministry for Nuclear Power has recently refused from the project of a nuclear burial ground in the Antarctic eternal cold region. The Nature Ministry and foreign independent experts approved the project before, although scientists of climate say that the global warming might melt the Antarctic ice in some hundred years.
In the meantime, the "Hot Drop" project is still developed by a group of Russian scientists, although the development is based on scientists' enthusiasm only. There are some doubts about the essence of the project: is there a need to put the radioactive garbage so deep under the ground? It is not ruled out that the garbage might become a valuable material in the future. There have been certain methods developed to bury nuclear wastes in the rock salt temporarily in order to be able to retrieve it in the future, if there is a need for it.
The "Hot Drop" technology could be sold abroad too: foreign countries could use it to get rid of their spent fuel. However, the Russian Ministry for Nuclear Power might believe that the spent fuel import is more profitable.