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Study suggests stainless steel might not be best solution for processed nuclear waste

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DWPF, Ohio State Corrosion Study

The Defense Waste Processing Facility at the Savannah River Site.

New research partially funded by the U.S. Department of Energy suggests plans for the storage and disposal of processed nuclear waste could be jeopardized by corrosive interactions between the waste and what it's ultimately kept in.

A study led by Xiaolei Guo, the deputy director of Ohio State University's Center for Performance and Design of Nuclear Waste Forms and Containers, found that, in the right environment, glass and ceramics and stainless steel interact in a way that accelerates degradation, especially in the case of nuclear waste. According to the university, Guo described it as "severe."

"This indicates that the current models may not be sufficient to keep this waste safely stored," Guo said in a statement. "And it shows that we need to develop a new model for storing nuclear waste."

Corrosion of a container risks exposing the material inside.

"In the real-life scenario, the glass or ceramic waste forms would be in close contact with stainless steel canisters," Guo continued. "Under specific conditions, the corrosion of stainless steel will go crazy."

The findings were published Jan. 27 in the Nature Materials journal.

The research team's focus was on what's known as "high-level" defense waste, a radioactive byproduct of nuclear weapons work. Such material is stored and processed 30 minutes south of Aiken at the Savannah River Site, among other federal installations.

In total, according to a 2017 report from the independent U.S. Government Accountability Office, the Department of Energy oversees the disposal of thousands of metric tons of radioactive defense waste and spent nuclear fuel.

The Defense Waste Processing Facility at the Savannah River Site has for years converted radioactive waste into glass logs more suitable for long-term storage. The overall process involves stainless steel containers.

Savannah River Site Watch Director Tom Clements on Monday said it was appropriate, welcome and "good to see a renewed interest by DOE in funding scientific research" that applies to work done at the Defense Waste Processing Facility.

"Around the time of DWPF start-up (in 1996), the appropriateness of the chosen stainless steel canister was obviously discussed but for too long a review of the canister design has been lacking," he continued in a message to the Aiken Standard.

Citizens for Nuclear Technology Awareness Executive Director Jim Marra, however, pushed back on the study Monday when asked about it, arguing the end results aren't as consequential or as fantastic as they have been portrayed. From his experience, Marra explained, the tests done weren't representative of typical real-world scenarios.

There is currently no singular, final solution for the disposition of nuclear waste in the U.S. Yucca Mountain – what was to be the nation's nuclear storehouse in arid Nevada – has fizzled, and efforts to revive it have received little federal traction.

The researchers, the university explained in an announcement, pressed glass and ceramic forms against stainless steel and immersed it in solutions for up to 30 days. The conditions, the university continued, were made similar to Yucca Mountain. Marra disagreed.

A request for comment from the Energy Department on Monday was not immediately returned. The department has touted the safety of stainless steel drums before.

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