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Welcome To Our Institute


The National Radioactive Waste Disposal Institute of South Africa (NRWDI)

A South African State-Owned Entity Dedicated to Professional Nuclear Waste Management and Disposal Services in terms of the National Radioactive Waste Disposal Institute Act, No 53 2008.


Our Head Office
Elias Motsoaledi Street Extension
R104 Pelindaba, Brits Magisterial District
Madibeng Municipality,0240
Telephone: +27 (12) 305 3222
Facsimile +27 (12) 305 3200

Dedicated to Professional Nuclear Waste Management and Disposal Services

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DISPOSING OF RADIOACTIVE WASTE


Vaalputs Radioactive Waste Disposal Facility - Question and Answers



Background

The need for a safe radioactive waste disposal facility was identified in the mid-1970s, when South Africa was engaged in the planning of its first nuclear power station at Koeberg. In the early 1980s, the search for a suitable waste disposal site began.

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The Vaalputs trenches are eight metres deep and are therefore surrounded by clay and 50 metres above the water-table. When the trenches are full they are back-filled and capped with two metres of compacted clay to exclude rainwater before being covered with sand and replanted with the original vegetation.

What makes radioactive waste different?

We are all familiar with the concept of waste. This is material that we have no further use for – we generate it in our homes every day and dispose of it in our dustbins. Every human activity results in the generation of waste, be it from shopping centres, office blocks, mining activities or industries.

What we do not often consider, however, is the fact that while household waste is usually harmless and can be disposed of at a regular municipal refuse site, this is not true for all waste. Many chemical industries, for example, produce waste that is toxic or poisonous to humans, animals or the environment and this has to be managed and disposed of very carefully in very specific ways.

Radioactive waste is little different from the above, however because of its nature, it has its own unique set of disposal criteria and must be disposed of in a manner that isolates it from humans and the environment.


What makes a site safe for the disposal of radioactive waste?

International best practice has established the selection criteria for the ideal radioactive waste disposal site as follows:


  • Low rainfall,
  • Low agricultural, mining, or economic growth potential,
  • Stable seismic conditions (few/no earth tremors or quakes),
  • Low population density,
  • Suitable groundwater conditions,
  • No impact on surrounding nature reserves or ecologically sensitive systems, and
  • Distant from international borders.

These criteria were used in research and studies throughout South Africa to identify the ideal site. Vaalputs, south-east of Springbok in the Northern Cape, met every one of these criteria perfectly. In addition, however, it was found to be underlain by a unique geological formation, more than 50 meters below surface, where the water in the table is more than two thousand years old. This provides assurance that what little rainfall there is, will not contaminate the water table in the area. Vaalputs was therefore selected as the perfect spot, complying fully with international standards.


Negotiations were held with landowners and the local community and 10 000 hectares of land was purchased, which now makes up the Vaalputs Radioactive Waste Disposal Facility, managed by the South African Nuclear Energy Corporation (Necsa).


Where does radioactive waste come from?

Most of us are familiar with the fact that nuclear technology is used in the generation of electricity at power plants such as Koeberg in South Africa and numerous other power stations throughout the world.


Nuclear technology has also become a powerful tool for the medical profession and is used for the diagnosis and treatment of several illnesses, including cancer.


More recently, radiation has become a critical process in the manufacture of silicon blocks, which are used to make micro-chips for the computers and cell phones that have become a critical part of our daily lives.


What does radioactive waste comprise of?

The waste can vary from the protective clothing worn by people working with radioactive materials (gloves, coats etc) to contaminated equipment and machinery or even soil and sludge.


Are all types of radioactive waste disposed of at Vaalputs?

Radioactive waste is categorised into three different types, according to the level of contamination. Vaalputs is dedicated to the management and disposal of intermediate level waste and low level waste (e.g. gloves, overalls and reactor concentrates). Very low level waste (e.g. landfill) and high level waste (e.g. spent fuel rods) are not disposed of at Vaalputs.


How is the waste disposed of at Vaalputs?

Because radioactive waste must be completely isolated from the environment, it is packed in metal or concrete drums (depending on the contents) at the point of departure and transported by road under stringent security measures to Vaalputs.


At Vaalputs, the drums are carefully inspected and monitored for conformance, before being packed, by type, into eight meter deep trenches. Within two months, the drums are covered with a layer of soil from the area followed by a layer of compacted clay. Once the trench is full, a further half meter of soil is overlaid so that the natural vegetation can once again establish itself.


Is Vaalputs a safe place to be?

At Vaalputs, the radioactive waste is carefully handled and managed to ensure utmost safety for the employees, the community and the environment. Every employee is thoroughly trained in all safety aspects and regularly monitored for exposure to radiation.


The soil, water, plants and animals in the area are also regularly monitored.


The activities at Vaalputs are governed by international standards. The facility operates under stringent licence conditions and is regularly inspected for compliance. These include:


  • Nuclear Licence NL28
  • The National Occupational Safety Act
  • The Nuclear Energy Act
  • The Nuclear Regulations Act, and
  • The quality requirements of SABS ISO 9001.

Necsa is internationally respected in nuclear safety and is a role-player in the International Atomic Energy Agency. All activities therefore also comply with the safety requirements of this organisation.


Can Vaalputs withstand disasters?

The facility has been designed to such high standards, that it can withstand an earthquake of the magnitude of that in Ceres in 1996 which measured 6,3 on the Richter scale. It can also withstand an aircraft accident.


How is Vaalputs managed?

In addition to its daily business, Vaalputs is managed in close co-operation with the surrounding community. The Communications Forum which is open to all interested parties in the area meets regularly and provides the opportunity to discuss matters of interest or concern.


Does Vaalputs contribute to the community?

Despite the fact that the site is run as a non-profit organisation, there is indeed a partnership with the community which ensures regular contributions to the social development of nearby communities and to the schools in the area.


What will happen to Vaalputs in the future?

It is expected that Vaalputs will have reached capacity around the year 2035. Thereafter it will be considered 'active' for the next 100 years, during which the site will be regularly monitored and inspected. In the following 200 years the site will be considered 'passive', but control measures will be maintained. After this, the site will be suitable for any development that might be envisaged.


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