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This is how radioactive waste is “buried”: how are nuclear cemeteries inside

Nobody wants them, but they are necessary. Nuclear cemeteries are shelters where to store and store radioactive waste, those compounds that by their nature or due to having been exposed to high radiation remain potentially dangerous for many years. What to do then with this radioactive waste? Hide them and keep them alright until they disintegrate or until a better solution is found.

The various nuclear cemeteries are divided into categories, based on their levels of radioactivity. And it is that within those yellow drums that we all usually associate with nuclear energy, there can be from low-level waste to highly contaminated material, be it clothes, computers or simply water.

What is done with radioactive waste so that it does not contaminate

Nuclear CemeteryNuclear Cemetery

Map of a low-level nuclear graveyard.

Some low and medium level waste, such as clothing and tools used in the maintenance of plants, are diluted and eliminated over time. Others are subjected to treatments to try to separate the radioactive elements. The rest are introduced into steel drums and solidify with tar or cement to be stored until the radioactive period ends. Usually less than 30 years.

However, there are also high-level wastes, usually those generated with spent fuel. In this case, an attempt is made to store in the central itself until they are transported in corrosion resistant metal containers. This is where nuclear cemeteries come in, which are still isolated shelters to store these wastes.

We can differentiate nuclear cemeteries into two types: temporary, located in warehouses and facilities and those known as deep geological repositories, located in stable areas, isolated from earthquakes and far from the surface. Authentic sealed galleries so that these residues are not in contact with man.

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El Cabril, the only nuclear cemetery in Spain

The CabrilThe Cabril

The only Spanish “nuclear cemetery” is prepared for low and medium level materials. These are the El Cabril facilities, located in Hornachuelos. The deposited content is basically drums from nuclear power plants, with one third of radioactive material and two thirds of cement. All this material is located in the complex, which previously it was an old uranium mine.

Enresa (National Radioactive Waste Company) is in charge of its operation. El Cabril also has offices, laboratories, an incinerator, a water pool and a blind tank for possible leaks. It is a very well prepared center, but today it is close to its maximum capacity.

The CabrilThe Cabril

Earthquake-proof concrete containers. Image of Engadget Science.

However, there is quite a controversy with the expansion of the enclosure. “The Cabril nuclear cemetery should never have been built because it is in the south of the Iberian Peninsula. It is very far from most nuclear and radioactive facilities,” says Paco Castejón, engineer and spokesperson for Ecologistas en Acción. Instead, since the end of 2011, the municipality of Villar de Cañas was chosen to house a new ATC (Centralized Temporary Warehouse). However, the reluctance of the population and the lack of determination of the Government has caused other options to be considered.

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Eva Noguero, director of El Cabril, assured in an interview with EFE that the “optimal alternative, both from an economic and technological point of view” is for the management of this type of waste “to continue in these facilities.”


Storage cell interior. Image of Enresa.

The waste storage area is made up of two platforms: the northern area with 16 cells and the southern area with 12. These cells are lined up in two platforms with two interior corridors. The trucks containing the waste stop at the entrance and with a system of cranes the waste is placed on top of each cell.

Once complete, each cell is capable of storing 320 containers, they are lined with concrete. AND once the assembly is completed, it will be covered with a layer of waterproof material two meters thick. The end result will end up being a small hill on which vegetation will be planted.

A deep nuclear graveyard for US military waste


The design of WIPP has little or nothing to do, the Pilot Plant for Waste Isolation that the US Department of Energy built 20 miles from Carlsbad, New Mexico. After the closure of the Yucca Mountain Cemetery, we are before one of the largest nuclear cemeteries and a perfect example of what a deep geological repository entails.

WIPP, in New Mexico, has been built on stable ground for the past 200 million years.

It is a complex of galleries located in a saline terrain and between 500 and 1000 meters deep, in an area that has been geologically stable for a long time. The repository began receiving waste in 1999 and is expected to continue receiving waste until 2070.

This solution, that of storing waste in deep galleries, constitutes the safest solution for humans, since the stability of geological formations is exploited. Because in a long time the installation may stop working, but the waste would still be well stored without endangering the outside.

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Other nuclear cemeteries around the world

Container systemContainer system Containers at the Zwilag facilities in Würenlingen (Switzerland).

Countries like France or Belgium also have their own nuclear cemeteries, in this case temporary warehouses to keep waste isolated for up to 300 years. Switzerland also has its warehouse, located in Würenlingen and built in 2004 to store low and medium level waste, as in the case of Spain. Unlike El Cabril, the one in Switzerland is much larger and has space for up to 200 cells.

Finland also has its nuclear graveyard, in this case one for high-level waste. It is about the construction of Onkalo, a cave in Finnish, a gallery that is accessed through a 420 meter deep tunnel. Until 1996, the radioactive material was sent to Russia in Finland, then two temporary warehouses were used, but from 2020 it will be sent to Onkalo, located on the Olkiluoto peninsula. And there they should stay for 100,000 years.

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Positive InputPositive Input

Entrance to the access tunnel of the waste cemetery, in Finland. Image of Posiva Ltd.

The age of the cave is its main weapon. Is about one of the oldest geological formations in Europe, a bedrock, surrounded by bentonite clay within a well drilled in granite. A natural barrier that is resistant to water and does not react to fluctuations in temperature. The total estimated cost of the installation is 3,000 million euros.

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