Deep Geologic Disposal of Nuclear Waste: A Small Dose of Science and Politics

Andrew Orrell, Director of Nuclear Energy Programs, Sandia National Laboratories


Monday, February 11, 2013 | 04:15 PM - 05:15 PM | NVIDIA Auditorium, Jen-Hsun Huang Engineering Center | Free and Open to All

The disposal of spent nuclear fuel and high-level waste in a deep geologic repository is a challenge which has stymied the United States and many other nations since the dawn of the commercial nuclear power industry a half-century ago. The scientific community has consistently endorsed deep geologic repositories ever since the first study by the National Academy of Sciences Committee on Waste Disposal in 1957, though sociopolitical disputes have typically been at the heart of delays and failures to achieve actual disposal. Regardless, it can be a substantial technical challenge (often decades long) to characterize a specific site and repository concept, to account for the numerous features, events and processes acting upon them, and the uncertainties therein. This is especially so when considering the very-long timeframes (commonly 1M years) for assessing repository performance. Many of these challenges are a reflection of the traditional mined-repository concepts of several hundred meters depth. Deep borehole disposal concepts of several kilometers depth would appear to provide ‘faster, cheaper, better’ opportunities for implementing safe disposal while involving potentially different sociopolitical dynamics. The recent Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future and other events compel us to consider new options in nuclear waste management. This discussion will review the present state of affairs regarding U.S. nuclear waste management as well as the technical options and issues for achieving nuclear waste disposal.

Brief Bio:

Mr. Andrew Orrell is the Director of Nuclear Energy & Fuel Cycle Programs for Sandia National Laboratories, responsible for laboratory development initiatives involving all facets of the nuclear fuel cycle. Mr. Orrell has over 20 years of industry experience in nuclear waste management and repository systems spanning all waste types. He headed Sandia’s Lead Laboratory for Repository Systems program that led the completion of the post-closure performance assessment portions of the 2008 Yucca Mountain License Application. Prior to working on the Yucca Mountain Program, he was the Sandia manager for the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) and the National Transuranic Waste Management program. His professional experience includes technical support for several international programs, including repository development, licensing, national policy development, regulatory framework development, site characterization studies, safety case development and performance assessments. Mr. Orrell regularly consults with leaders of government on nuclear energy and nuclear waste policy. He is versed in the complex issues regarding the treatment, storage and disposal of radioactive waste and the interdependencies between the technical, program and policy elements of nuclear waste management and nuclear energy.

Recommended Readings:

Radioactive Waste: Production, Storage, Disposal (NUREG/BR-0216, Revision 2)

High-Level Waste Disposal: Update on Status of High-Level Waste Disposal Program as of September 30, 2011

DOE's License Application for a High-Level Waste Geologic Repository at Yucca Mountain

Blue Ribbon Commission on America's Nuclear Future Final Report to the Secretary of Energy, January


SANDIA REPORT: SAND2009-4401: Deep Borehole Disposal of High-Level Radioactive Waste

SANDIA REPORT: SAND2011-6749: Reference Design and Operations for Deep Borehole Disposal of High-Level Radioactive Waste