China earmarks site to store nuclear waste deep underground

Echo Xie

China has chosen a site for an underground laboratory to research the disposal of highly radioactive waste, the country’s nuclear safety watchdog said on Wednesday.

Officials said work would soon begin on building the Beishan Underground Research Laboratory 400 metres (1,312 feet) underground in the northwestern province of Gansu.

Liu Hua, head of the National Nuclear Safety Administration, said work would be carried out to determine whether it was possible to build a repository for high-level nuclear waste deep underground.

“China sees radioactive waste disposal as a very important part [of the development nuclear energy],” Liu said. “To develop nuclear energy, we must have safe storage and disposal of nuclear waste.”

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The Chinese authorities see nuclear power as an important source of energy to help curb carbon emissions and pollution as well as reduce its dependence on fuel imports.

But while the country has made great strides in the development of nuclear power, it needs to find a safe and reliable way of dealing with its growing stockpiles of nuclear waste.

Liu said the Gansu site was identified as a possible location for a deep nuclear waste store after years of searching.

Once the laboratory is built, scientists and engineers will start experiments to confirm whether it will make a viable underground storage facility.

“Based on the data of the experiments, we can then decide if we are going to pick this as the final site,” he added.

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Chinese officials usually stay tight-lipped about how nuclear waste is disposed of mainly because of fears that any discussion of the topic would trigger safety fears, although in recent years more efforts have been made to inform the public to win support.

Scientists say nuclear waste can be divided into three categories, depending on the level of radioactivity.

Low-level waste consists of minimally radioactive materials such as mop heads, rags, or protective clothing used in nuclear plants, while intermediate-level waste covers things such as filters and used reactor components.

High-level waste, however, is generated by the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel and scientists generally agree that the safest way to dispose of it is to bury it deep underground in areas where the geology means it will have a minimal impact on the environment while it decays over thousands of years.

The facility will be built in a remote part of Gansu province. Photo: Handout

Some Chinese scientists said the country had the chance to lead the world in this area of research but others have expressed concerns about safety.

Jiang Kejun, a senior researcher at the National Development and Reform Commission’s Energy Research Institute, said very few countries in the world were studying this form of nuclear waste disposal.

“It gives China an opportunity to be a leader in research in this area, plus China has the technology and financial means,” Jiang said.

About a dozen countries, including France, Switzerland, Japan, and the United States, have carried out research in this area, but in recent years most have abandoned or scaled back their programmes.

At present, there are storage sites operating in Finland and the US, but other countries such as Germany have abandoned plans to build similar facilities.

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Despite broad scientific support for underground disposal, some analysts and many members of the public remain sceptical about whether it is really safe.

Lei Yian, an associate professor at Peking University’s school of physics, said there was no absolute guarantee that the repositories would be safe when they came into operation.

“Leakage has happened in [repositories] in the US and the former Soviet Union … It’s a difficult problem worldwide,” he said. “If China can solve it, then it will have solved a global problem.”

China is also building more facilities to dispose of low and intermediate-level waste. Officials said new plants were being built in Zhejiang, Fujian and Shandong, three coastal provinces that lack disposal facilities.

At present, two disposal sites for low and intermediate-level waste are in operation in Gansu and Guangdong provinces.

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