The art of radioactive waste storage

16 April 2009

The Netherlands' centralized radioactive waste processing and storage facility has agreed to help local museums store their artefacts and works of art in its unused storage space for up to 100 years.

Museum deposit (Covra)
'Preserve the Past, to Supply the Future' reads a banner as the museum depot is opened (Image: Covra)
Museums in the Zeeland region of the Netherlands, where the Central Organization for Radioactive Waste (Covra) facility is located, have endured a shortage of storage space for the artefacts that are not on display. This represents some 90% of their stock.
Covra said that a pilot project was started in 2008 to determine whether a radioactive waste storage facility is suitable as a museum depot, to identify optimal conditions and equipment. The pilot was successful and now at least seven regional museums will start storing artefacts in a low- and intermediate-level waste (LLW/ILW) store.
The official opening of the museum depot on 15 April was well attended with over 50 visitors, including museum directors, local and regional politicians, and the media. The opening started with a working conference on conservation and archiving at Covra. The depot was opened by a member of the Provincial Executive by opening the access door - disguised as a vault door - to one of the storage modules for radioactive waste where the museum collections are also stored.
Inside the storage module a contract for the 100 years of collaboration between the museums and Covra was signed. Such a long-term contract is unique even for museums, said Covra's Ewoud Verhoef, adding that even the National Museum of the Netherlands (the Rijksmuseum), where works by Rembrandt can be seen, only has a 40-year contract with a storage depot.
Verhoef said that the long timescales involved in managing nuclear waste can be hard for people to understand, and this contrasts with their easy understanding of some similar timescales involved in preserving great works of art. He added that Covra has benefited from allowing the museums to introduce some of the concepts surrounding nuclear power to new audiences. "The link between the storage of works of art and of radioactive waste helps people to visualize and better understand the concept of long-term storage," Verhoef commented.
Under the Netherlands' nuclear energy policy, all levels of radioactive waste will be stored above ground for a period of at least 100 years. Covra is responsible for the central storage of this waste. After 100 years' storage, consideration will be given to whether part of the waste that is still radioactive can be disposed of in a national underground repository.

Covra said that the total amount of radioactive waste produced over the next 100 years can easily be stored at its site, which covers an area of about 20 hectares.
In the treatment and storage of the radioactive waste, a distinction is made between LLW, ILW and high-level waste (HLW). The artistic concept of the Habog facility - an interim store for HLW - won Covra the 2008 PIME Award for communication in the nuclear industry.
Habog features a bright orange exterior and prominently displays of Albert Einstein's equation, E=mc2, and Max Planck's E=hv. Designed to last for up to 300 years, it contains the waste resulting from the reprocessing of all the nuclear fuel ever removed from the Netherlands' Borsselle and Dodewaard nuclear power stations after electricity generation. The waste inside Habog is planned to remain there for 100 years, during which time its radioactivity will decrease through decay. This process is symbolised by the colour of the building's exterior, which is to be repainted every 20 years in lighter and lighter shades of orange until reaching white.