Product has been added to the basket

Response to NDA proposed research and development strategy

Response #192

Submitted: 28 November 2008

1. The Geological Society is grateful for the opportunity to respond to the draft R&D strategy. We are pleased to note the NDA’s evident commitment to consulting widely on this and other matters, now and in the future. The fact that the NDA has identified the need to develop strategic alliances with a wide range of other key players, from industry and regulators to universities and learned societies, is welcome, particularly in light of the suspicion with which it has historically been regarded by parts of the geoscientific community – there is a perception that the NDA tends to fund research over very short time scales, and that there is an institutional bias towards contracting work to commercial organisations (or at least to operate commercial-style competitive selection processes). The Geological Society looks forward to continuing to play an active part in the MRWS programme, and to providing assistance to the NDA and others where appropriate. Some of the particular ways in which we might expect to help are expanded on below.

2. The Society advocates the development of a broad national research programme for geoscience relevant to radioactive waste management. This necessarily includes but also extends beyond research undertaken or contracted by the NDA. The scope of what the NDA can do is restricted by its remit, and naturally focuses primarily on the activities set out at the various stages of the MRWS programme. It is vital that there are active research communities carrying out work complementary to the NDA’s, challenging assumptions and setting it in a broader context. Only in this way will there be funding and career development options for those wanting to commit to working in radioactive waste management research – such a pluralist approach will bring advantages not just to the individuals and institutions involved, but also to the NDA itself. With this in mind, we feel that it is important for the NDA to be cognisant of these other research communities, and of any emerging broader national research programme, and to redouble its efforts to build cooperative relationships with key players in the development and funding of academic research, especially the relevant Research Councils (primarily EPSRC and NERC).

3. It is also essential that the NDA’s research programme, as well as its wider remit, is appreciated and championed in central government. The complex programme on which the NDA and others are embarking is without obvious peacetime precedent, and the Geological Society will work with fellow learned societies and other organisations to raise the profile of the MRWS programme and the research work which is essential to its success. It is important that the NDA, along with CoRWM and other interested parties, seeks to identify champions in government who can reinforce the case for continuing government commitment to the MRWS programme, and emphasise the importance of sustained funding and institutional support of the associated research programme over the coming decades.

4. A key dependency for successful implementation of the MRWS programme is to develop and nurture a skilled workforce of suitably qualified and experienced geoscientists. At present, there is a high degree of dependence on a small existing ‘old guard’ of those who were involved in radioactive waste management until the late 1990s, and who have extensive knowledge of the political, social, scientific and technical issues, and of the relevant Earth science research. This group needs to be augmented, and new skills bases relevant to the MRWS programme need to be developed, with regard to the future requirements of the different stages of the programme in the long term. There is a particular challenge in planning requirements for geoscientific capabilities over the lifetime of the project, in that there are not yet any candidate sites (and this may remain the case for some time). It is therefore impossible at this stage to start research relevant to the particular geologies of such sites, or even to identify accurately what geological expertise will be required. Nonetheless, it is essential that a meaningful and active research programme continues to address generic geological issues – indeed, given the anticipated need for qualified, experienced and committed geoscientists at later stages in the programme, which could not be met at present, development of this workforce, and of our national capability to carry out work of this kind, must be a primary driver for the initial geoscience research programme.

5. The Geological Society can assist with identifying and developing the skills agenda in a number of ways. It will continue to press the case for suitable training through MSc programmes, and to support high quality teaching through its degree accreditation scheme. Recognising that there are geoscientists who have relevant knowledge, skills and experience, but who may not be aware of the MRWS programme or the opportunities to engage with it, we would also expect to keep the Earth science community informed about the evolving needs of the programme, and the associated opportunities. However, our role is necessarily auxiliary. It is incumbent on the NDA and others planning and funding research to ensure that there are genuine and well advertised opportunities for young scientists to develop sustainable and intellectually stimulating careers in research relating to radioactive waste management. The concern raised above regarding perceptions in the academic community about the short timescales and commercial-style competitive basis on which the NDA distributes it research funding is particularly relevant in this context. Notwithstanding the legal obligations on the NDA with regard to its management and funding of outsourced work, it is essential that it develops its role as a trusted, transparent and well understood funder of academic research, and that with others it is able to offer the prospect of stability and potential continuity of funding to those who perform well. It is important that NDA delivers on its commitment to building strategic alliances with key research institutions and universities – these should allow longer term and continuous research to be planned, and will enable investment in the development of appropriate laboratory and field-testing capabilities so that research into state-of-the-art techniques is fed directly into site characterisation activities. The need to comply with EU requirements regarding tendering processes has not prevented the establishment of such strategic alliances in France and Sweden. There are particular challenges around elements of research work which of necessity will extend over very long time periods (for example, monitoring of certain site characteristics over decades during and after emplacement), for which no satisfactory funding model currently exists at all, whether through the NDA, the Research Councils, or any other institution.

6. Much valuable research has been done overseas, and the NDA will need to examine this work critically. In addition to peer reviewed publications, there is a great deal of grey literature of variable quality, resulting from national and international programmes. Some is widely disseminated, and some remains obscure. Even research which is identified as being relevant and of suitable quality will require work to ensure it is applied appropriately in the UK context, and that it is not imported in isolation from technologies and other specificities on which it depends. Recent UK participation in EU and other international programmes has been sporadic and not rationally planned. There is much to be gained from engagement with such programmes, and with the existing research traditions and literatures mentioned above – in doing so, development of the UK skills base and national capability should be paramount.

7. The Society does not wish to comment on the particular geoscientific issues identified by the NDA at this point as the focus for research. Following the discussion meeting we convened for CoRWM Working Group C (Research and Development) in September, a small group of Fellows of the Society set out a list of general areas in which it was felt that further research is needed – a number of which coincide with NDA’s own priorities. This is attached to our submission for your information, without prejudice.

8. The Geological Society was pleased to be invited to participate in the planning of the NDA’s recent RWMD R&D Strategy workshop, and to attend as an observer. The opportunity in particular to work with other learned societies in this capacity is most welcome. We stand ready to provide further assistance, drawing on the expertise within our membership, through which we can offer advice on both geoscientific issues and skills availability, and with others to continue to provide institutional support and channels of communication with a range of audiences.

The Geological Society of London

25 November 2008

Geoscience R&D themes for geological disposal

The following themes are areas where we see either potential for additional research to reduce uncertainties in existing models used to evaluate siting or performance of a Geological Disposal Facility (GDF), or opportunities for cross over with other areas of Earth Science application we are aware of significant developments in recent years. Our proposals mainly involve the collection of field or experimental data to test existing models, and focus on those areas where there are significant uncertainties that we believe can and should be reduced.

Two general considerations for research planning are: (a) to what extent are the required studies generic with respect to HLW/SF or ILW facilities, design and geological setting and to what extent are they design-specific and site-specific; (b) should the required investigations should be carried out in boreholes or is an underground laboratory (generic or site-specific) required? In the latter case development and access to these is likely to be a constraint

Generic Research:

  • Application of new developments in the use of 3D seismics and other geophysical techniques for characterisation of ground conditions in mine planning to the evaluation of possible GDF sites and the design of the GDF.
  • What is the spatial variability, vertically and laterally, of rock types and geological structure and how do these factors affect groundwater movements? 
  • What can be predicted about rock quality and its implications for design and mining of safe stable rock openings (shafts, tunnels, galleries, deposition holes)?
  • Controls on the distribution of permeability in low-permeability rock units. 
  • In a fractured hard rock, how connected and transmissive is the network of fractures? 
  • What are the lithological and structural controls on permeability distribution? 
  • Fundamental properties of concentrated electrolyte solutions in a GDF context.
  • If a chamber remains open for a period of decades, concentrated salts will accumulate from evaporation of any seepages of groundwater and may have a significant impact on barrier corrosion. Existing models are mainly designed for atmospheric aerosols or concentrated chloride solutions. 
  • Rates of mineral-fluid interactions in a GDF context 
  • Rates of chemical exchange between minerals and groundwater must be known, as well as flow rates, to evaluate the overall solute pathways and travel times. These can only be measured once the reaction mechanisms are understood. 
  • What are the effects of radiation damage to mineral structures? 
  • Effectiveness of the host rock formation and other rocks between facility and biosphere as a barrier to radionuclide migration. ? How effective are sorption and matrix diffusion in the host rock and along groundwater flow paths as mechanisms to retard the movement of radionuclides? 
  • What effects would other waste and introduced materials such as organic materials and colloids, and other processes such as competitive sorption, secondary mineralisation, co-precipitation and radiation damage have on radionuclide movement through host rocks? 
  • Investigation of the effect of depth below ground surface on geosphere hydraulics, mechanics, chemistry and microbiology to ensure that the design basis for waste containment is robust in the face of long term environmental and climate change.
  • Is the optimum depth being chosen? 
  • Is a GDF immune to future changes at the surface?

Site-Specific Research:
  • What interactions can be expected between a specific excavated facility, the engineered barriers, emplaced waste and other introduced materials and the surrounding rocks.
  • Would an excavation and operation of a facility change the properties of surrounding rocks? 
  • Will the properties of the surrounding rocks (e.g. mechanics, hydraulics, biogeochemistry of groundwater) change the properties of the EBS? 
  • Directions, pathways and fluxes for groundwater movements into and away from a GDF and path lengths and travel times for groundwater to move from the GDF to the surface. ?
  • In a fractured hard rock, how connected and transmissive is the network of fractures, and how should groundwater and solute movement over a distance scale comparable with facility depth be modelled?
  • In a clay-rich sedimentary rock, what processes control water and solute movements and in what rocks and over what distances is diffusion the controlling mechanism? 
  • Can modelled groundwater and solute pathways and travel times from GDF depth to surface be confirmed by measurements, e.g. geochemical data, and other evidence? 
  • Maintenance of excavated openings in rock at GDF depth over the prolonged period of operation of a facility. 
  • What are the main processes, mechanical and chemical, that degrade rock supports and underground infrastructure?
  • What measures could be taken to optimise the operational safety, durability and costs of a mined facility for a prolonged period? 
  • Evidence from comparable rock, groundwater and mineral systems and other ‘natural analogues’ that supports or challenges the long-term performance and stability of a GDF site and EBS design. 
  • Is there evidence that certain geological conditions might be more or less stable in terms of mechanical, hydraulic, chemical sensitivity to e.g. glaciation, seismicity? 
  • Is there evidence in the past evolution of ore deposits, water-rock interactions and minerals that tests and confirms or challenges the models and parameters that underlie long-term performance of specific aspects of EBS designs and site geology?