China is building a laboratory up to 560 meters (1,837 feet) underground in the middle of the Gobi desert to carry out tests on nuclear waste, officials have confirmed.
The facility, in remote Beishan, Gansu province, will be used by scientists and engineers to test the suitability of the area for the long-term storage of the highly radioactive waste generated by nuclear power plants. Construction begins next year and will finish by 2024.
“We are doing research into this project and it will soon be put into practice,” said Liu Hua, head of the National Nuclear Safety Administration, during a press conference on Tuesday.
The site was selected in Gansu because it presents ideal conditions to prevent leaks: there is no seismic activity nearby and the bedrock the lab will be housed in is made of granite, which reduces the risk of groundwater seepage or fractures, according to a paper published in The Journal of Rock Mechanics and Geotechnical Engineering last year.
Construction begins next year, with the facility expected to be completed by 2024. Research will be carried out until 2040 – and if the results are positive, a long-term storage facility will be built.
Underground disposal is considered to be the best solution for nuclear waste, as radioactive material takes thousands of years to decay, according to the World Nuclear Association (WNA). The spent fuel should be packaged in sealed copper canisters and placed in underground tunnels or caverns, surrounded by cement or bentonite clay to provide another barrier.
China views nuclear energy as a viable alternative to curb the pollution generated by its coal-fired plants and to reduce its dependency on imported fossil fuels, according to a report by The Center for Strategic and International Studies. It has about 45 nuclear power reactors in operation and 15 under construction, according to the WNA.
Nuclear waste is currently stored in cooling pools at reactor sites, but these are not foolproof, says Greenpeace. “They lack secondary containment and are vulnerable to loss of cooling, and in many cases lack independent back-up power,” the environmental organization said in a January report.
The International Atomic Energy Agency estimates that 250,000 tons of spent fuel is in storage worldwide.
The only underground storage facility currently in operation is based in New Mexico, US, but it is used exclusively for defense-related waste. Finland has identified a site, on an island 143 miles northwest of Helsinki. Other sites have been discussed in Nevada, Sweden and France but face strong local opposition, according to the WNA.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, NASA explored ejecting nuclear waste into space and directing it towards the sun, but the move was considered too expensive.