Around 250,000 tons of irradiated graphite (i-graphite) exists worldwide and can be considered as a current waste or future waste stream. The largest national i-graphite inventory is located in UK (∼ 100,000 tons) with significant quantities also in Russia and France . Most of the i-graphite remains in the cores of shutdown nuclear reactors including the MAGNOX type in UK and the UNGG in France. Whilst there are still operational power reactors with graphite cores, such as the Russian RBMKs and the AGRs in UK, all of them will reach their end of life during the next two decades.
The most common reference waste management option of i-graphite is a wet or dry retrieval of the graphite blocks from the reactor core and the grouting of these blocks in a container without further conditioning. This produces large waste package volumes because the encapsulation capacity of the grout is limited and large cavities in the graphite blocks could reduce the packing densities. Packing densities from 0.5 to 1 tons per cubic meter have been assumed for grouting solutions.
Furthermore the grout is permeable. This could over time allow the penetration of aqueous phases into the waste block and a potential dissolution and release of radionuclides. As a result particularly highly soluble radionuclides may not be retained by the grout.
Vitrification could present an alternative, however a similar waste package volume increase may be expected since the encapsulation capacity of glass is potentially similar to or worse than that of grout.
FNAG has developed a process for the production of a graphite-glass composite material called Impermeable Graphite Matrix (IGM) . This process is also applicable to irradiated graphite which allows the manufacturing of an impermeable material without volume increase. Crushed i-graphite is mixed with 20 vol.% of glass and then pressed under vacuum at an elevated temperature in an axial hot vacuum press (HVP). The obtained product has zero or negligible porosity and a water impermeable structure. Structural analysis shows that the glass in the composite has replaced the pores in the graphite structure. The typical pore volume of a graphite material is in the range of 20 vol.%. Therefore no volume increase will occur in comparison with the former graphite material.
This IGM material will allow the encapsulation of i-graphite with package densities larger than 1.5 ton per cubic meter. Therefore a huge volume saving can be achieved by such an alternative encapsulation method. Disposal performance is also enhanced since little or no leaching of radionuclides is observed due to the impermeability of the material.
NNL and FNAG have proved that IGM can be produced by hot isostatic pressing (HIP) which has several advantages for radioactive materials over the HVP process.
• The sealed HIP container avoids the release of any radionuclides.
• The outside of the waste package is not contaminated.
• The HIP process time is shorter than the HVP process time.
• The isostatic press avoids anisotropic density distributions.
• Simple filling of the HIP container has advantages over the filling of an axial die.