Greenland ice sheet studied as part of repository research

13 September 2016

Finland’s Posiva, Sweden’s Svensk Kärnbränslehantering (SKB) and Canada’s Nuclear Waste Management Organisation have collaborated on a five-year, (2008-2013) research project, The Greenland Analogue Project (GAP), investigating ice sheet conditions, in relation to the long-term management of used nuclear fuel in a deep geological repository. The focus of the study, the Greenland Ice Sheet, is the second largest ice sheet in the world and comparable to the ice sheets predicted to extend over both Scandinavia and Canada in the future.

The research, described in a report, focuses on increasing scientific understanding of how an ice sheet interacts with areas both above and below ground. This can be used in comprehensive, detailed studies used to evaluate the safety of deep geological repositories over timeframes of up to a million years. During the last million years, regions of Finland, Sweden and Canada have experienced multiple ice ages, occurring on average every 100,000 years. “That is why it is imperative to understand the conditions at the surface and below an ice sheet when planning for the management of used nuclear fuel in a deep geological repository,” the companies said. The research, carried out in western Greenland, close to Kangerlussuaq town, involved direct and indirect observations of ice sheet movement, meltwater runoff, water pressure due to the weight of the sheet, and water transfer from the ice sheet to areas below the ice surface. Boreholes were drilled through the ice sheet to the point of contact with the underlying rock to measure the underground pressure exerted by the ice sheet. A borehole was also drilled at the edge of the sheet at a depth approximating repository conditions to enable hydraulic and chemical monitoring to be carried out. Weather stations monitored climate conditions.

SKB's application for an integrated system for the final disposal of used nuclear fuel and radioactive waste received approval from the Sweden’s Radiation Safety Authority earlier in 2016. Posiva last year received a licence from the Finnish government to construct an encapsulation plant and final repository for used fuel at Olkiluoto. NWMO is conducting a phased process to identify a site for a deep repository for Canada's used nuclear fuel.

Meanwhile, concerns were raised in August involving US activities in Greenland following suggestions that radioactive waste from a former top secret military base could find its way to the ocean as a result of the melting icecaps.

The Camp Century base was established under the ice east of the Thule Air Base in 1959 by the US Army as part of Project Iceworm. It used a mobile nuclear reactor as an energy source for the 200 soldiers and researchers at the camp.

When the project was abandoned in 1966, the USA promised the Danish government it would clean up the site, but low radiation waste and toxic PCBs were never cleared. "It's not a question of if it will happen, but it's more a question of when," Dirk van As, a climate researcher from the Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland (GEUS), told Denmark’s Information newspaper. "This waste won't remain covered by the ice forever. If climate change continues, the waste will reach the surface of the ice and leak into the ocean."

The Copenhagen Post website cited experts as saying that cleaning up the waste would only become possible just before the waste is exposed by the melting ice, which is estimated to take place around 2090. But in is unclear who will finance the work. Denmark's official post-WWII policy forbids any nuclear weapons on Danish territory. However, in 1968 A US B52 bomber carrying four hydrogen bombs crashed onto sea ice in North Star Bay near the Thule Air base while on a secret mission. As a result, the conventional explosives aboard detonated and the nuclear payload ruptured causing serious radioactive contamination. The USA and Denmark launched an intensive clean-up and recovery operation, but the secondary stage of one of the nuclear weapons was never found.



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