Comparing the hydrogeological prospectivity of three UK locations for deep radioactive waste disposal
Hipkins, Emma Victoria
The UK has a large and growing inventory of higher activity radioactive waste awaiting safe long term disposal. The international consensus is to dispose of this radioactive and toxic waste within a deep geological repository, situated 200-1,000 metres beneath the ground surface. The deep geological disposal facility is designed to be a series of engineered and natural barriers. Groundwater forms an integral component of the natural barrier because it 1) controls the flux of reactive components towards the engineered repository, and 2) forms one of the primary transport mechanism through which released radionuclides can be transported away from the repository. The timescale of protection provided by the natural barrier exceeds those provided by the engineered barriers. Knowledge of the regional hydrogeology is a vital step towards predicting the long term performance of any potential repository site. Topically, a UK government decision in 2017 to re-open a nation-wide repository location search has now created a renewed mandate for site exploration. This research aims to determine the regional groundwater characteristics of three UK settings, selected to be hydrogeologically distinct, in order to determine which, if any, offers natural long term hydrogeological containment potential. The settings selected for analysis include Sellafield in West Cumbria, the Tynwald Basin within the East Irish Sea Basin, and Thetford within East Anglia. Site selection is based on diverse groundwater characteristics, and on previous research suggesting potential hydrogeological suitability at these locations. This research is novel in that it provides, for the first time, a direct comparison between the characteristics and qualities of different regional groundwater settings to contain and isolate radioactive waste, based on UK site specific data. Large and detailed numerical models for the three sites, covering areas of 30 km length by 2- 4 km depth have been developed using the open source finite element code ‘OpenGeoSys’. The models couple the physical processes of liquid flow and heat transport, in order to replicate regional scale groundwater flow patterns. Models are calibrated to measured rock properties, and predict groundwater behaviour 10,000 years into the future. Uncertain parameter ranges of lithological and fault permeabilities, and peak repository temperatures are tested to determine the possible range of groundwater outcomes. Geochemical retention is assessed separately and validated using the finite difference modelling software ‘GoldSim’. Worst case groundwater characteristics for containment and isolation at each site are compared to an ‘ideal’ benchmark far-field hydrogeological outflow scenario, and scored accordingly using a newly proposed method of assessment. Results show that the Tynwald Basin offers the best potential of the three sites for natural radionuclide containment, performing between 3.5 and 4 times better than Sellafield, and between 1.7 and 4 times better than Thetford. The Tynwald Basin is characterised by 1) long and deep groundwater pathways, and 2) slow local and regional groundwater movement. Furthermore, the Tynwald Basin is located at a feasible tunnelling distance from the coast, adjacent to the UK’s current nuclear stockpile at Sellafield, and thus could provide a simple solution to the current waste legacy problem. Results from the Sellafield model indicate that this location cannot be considered to exhibit beneficial characteristics due to short and predictable groundwater pathways which ascend, from the repository, towards surface aquifers. Finally, Thetford within East Anglia has never been drilled to depth so that sub-surface rock properties of basement, located beneath layered sediments, are based on evidence inferred from around the UK. Uncertainties in rock properties has produced a wide range of groundwater characteristic possibilities, with results indicting prospective performance to range from 0 to 2.4 times better than Sellafield. As such, the hydrogeological suitability to host a potential deep geological repository is promising when modelled with most-likely permeability values, but cannot be accurately determined at present. Consideration of decaying heat from the heat emitting waste packages at the three sites reveal that the natural groundwater flow patterns can be distorted up to as much as 7 km away from the theoretical repository, depending on setting. This thus changes the use of the term ‘near-field’ for safety assessments, as implying an area within the immediate vicinity of the excavated repository site. The overarching findings from this research are that: 1) some locations have greater long term radionuclide containment and isolation prospectivity than others, due to variable quality far-field geological and hydrogeological characteristics; 2) the effect of radiogenic heat emission on the natural groundwater flow pattern is dependent on the site specific geological and hydrogeological characteristics, and therefore so is the area defined as the ‘near-field’; and 3) a simple method of site comparison is possible for regional groundwater system under steadystate conditions. Recommendations are for scoping models of regional groundwater settings to be used as a comparative tool, such as undertaken as part of this research, to differentiate between potential sites at an early stage of the current UK site selection programme.