10,000 containers and no solutions
For the past few weeks, (see Le Soir 9/20) it has been public knowledge that Belgium has problems with radioactive waste containers from the Belgoprocess storage site and the Doel nuclear center.
Despite being discovered last February, the exact size of the phenomenon and its potential seriousness are still not completely known. Tuesday, managers of this very delicate issue testified as to what is known and, especially, what isn't, in front of the Nuclear Security Commission. Conspicuous by their absence from the meeting were several deputies and government representatives.
It seems that there were not 7,300 containers, but rather 10,000 that may have been affected by the appearance of a suspicious gel on the concrete area that contains the waste. In addition to the 7,268 containers from Belgoprocess and Doel, approximately 1,560 containers must be added containing resins used for radioactive water filtration, 800 containing filters and one hundred from cleaning the old BR3 reactor at the Center for Nuclear Studies which was shut down in 1987.
In some of the 400 liters containers, experts from Ondraf, the National Organization for Radioactive Waste, noticed a sort of foaming gel that gives some surfaces the look of crème brulèe. This sticky gel results from a chemical reaction common in concrete construction. "That's the principal hypothesis, anyway," Jean-Paul Minon, head of Ondraf, told the deputies. "As of today, we have not ruled out other phenomena." The problem seems to be closely tied to the waste-capture process used at Doel. The use of gravel could be the factor that triggers the chemical reaction. It seems that the method used at Tihange, which uses neither gravel nor sand, does not result in the production of the gel.
Neither specialists from Electrabel, the waste's "producer," nor those from Belgoprocess, the storage site, nor those of Ondraf or the Agency for Nuclear Control knows when the gel appeared, how it developed, what impact it has on waste confinement or how it may change in the future. It will take a few months more to be able to answer these questions As to solutions to the problem, "Today, I have no answer to that question," admits Minon. Electrabel mentions the possibility of removing the gel if the reaction is not progressive; others talk about reprocessing the containers; Belgocom's former chief has suggested using a plasma oven at very high temperatures. That option was ruled out at yesterday's hearings.
According to the preliminary observations, it seems that the low-level radioactive gel has not begun to compromise the containers, Wim De Clercq, Electrabel's director of production and purchasing said. The electrician confirms that after having completed processing the waste at Doel, he will ask to implement the technique used at Tihange. While awaiting the green light from Ondraf - perhaps for two years - the waste will remain in storage at the Antwerp nuclear center site.
"Today, we have no specific security problems with storage," Minon insisted, "but we must review security in the near term." Ecolo deputy Murielle Gerkens warned against rushing into the issue of surface waste storage. "This demonstrates that we are not ready. We have not yet mastered the process." One thing seems sure; the bill, whose total no one yet knows, will be handed to the nuclear centers' owners.