Underground Lab at Bure

PART ONE: Arriving and Going Underground

My first full day in Paris took me on a trip.  I was an invited guest of Andra, the French radioactive waste management organization (and thus the counterpart of my employer in the U.S.).  Some highlights of that tour are on these four pages.

After a three-hour drive I was pleasantly surprised to see the U.S. flag flying, and quite honored to find out it was flying to commemorate my visit. That was very thoughtful.

I was also surprised to find out there had been a news release about my visit, and it had run in the local paper for the Bure area.  The news release gave some facts about the U.S. high-level waste repository program, that access to its site was via a ramp into a hillside and that it was at about the same depth contemplated for a site being proposed to be located near the Bure underground research facility.  The U.S, site was in volcanic tuff.  

The U.S. also had the largest fleet of nuclear reactors in the world, and was ahead of France and Japan in terms of numbers of reactors.  That was all good, but in describing my duties in the U.S. something was lost in translation and I was said to be in charge of nuclear safety at Yucca Mountain.  That was just a bit off the mark since I am a Senior Policy Advisor to the person in charge of the long-term safety evaluations, and someone else altogether is in charge of safety during operations.  

But when the paper simplified the story a bit further still, it put me in charge of nuclear safety for the U.S.  If there were such a post I would be most honored to be occupying it, since it would mean being in charge of the nuclear safety related activities of the Environmental Protection Agency, which sets standards for and does permitting for some nuclear installations; of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission which writes the regulations for and licenses all civilian uses of radioactive materials; and of the Departments of Energy and Defense, both of whom are self-regulating where its use of nuclear materials is concerned.  What an opportunity!

However, there actually already is cooperation on nuclear safety issues between all these agencies through a cross-cutting effort managed by the Environmental Protection Agency that produces what is called Federal Guidance Report documents, which all parts of the U.S. government must follow.

But enough of that daydreaming about a new job.  I like my current job just fine.

We had just driven east from Paris, frequently encountering rain, and I was quite eager to go underground and see this clay I had heard much about over the last few years.

The host rock being studied is the Callovo-Oxfordian sedimentary rock, an argillite, a claystone ~130 meters (~390 feet) in thickness starting at the -420 meter (~1,260 feet below the surface) level:

Our descent to the research level, about 1,500 feet down, was by a capable mine elevator.  These photos show it arriving at depth and then give a view of the shaft in which it travels (there is also a rescue elevator in the same shaft, and there is a second shaft with another elevator  --safety first!--).

Speaking of safety, our first stop was to see one of the rescue chambers where we would head in case of any trouble (there are two such rooms).

We were treated to being able to watch the start of a new tunnel off the main tunnel, the underground laboratory is being substantially expanded:

The layout we walked through is posted on the wall:

This is what the main tunnel looked like:

But the object of the visit was to get a sense of the research being conducted, not just to walk through tunnels.  All that cabling is to provide power to ventilation, lights and other infrastructure, but also to allow data to be collected from many continuing experiments.  Data is funneled into a "clean-room" where dust us controlled and computers collect and transfer the data to the locations where researchers are making use of it:

So, what data is being collected?  These are just some of the ongoing tests we looked at: tests looking at how the claystone adjusts to pressure relief caused by the excavation (it moves), tests to get samples of clay fluids and gases (difficult to extract), tests on how radioactive elements might migrate through this rock (slowly), tests on how this rock responds to drying from ventilation and temperature increases from hot radioactive wastes (little effect), and a test on how to transmit data wirelessly (at very low frequency).

The next few pages will take a look at these, and some other, tests.

Go to next Bure visit page to see some tests

Go to third Bure visit page to see more tests

Go to last Bure visit page to see it rain on the way home (to Paris)

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