Ancient Egyptians help with nuclear waste storage

Specialists charged with the safe storage of Britain's nuclear waste have been inspired by ancient Egyptians when looking for ways to ensure vital records are not lost to the sands of time.

Due to the very nature of the work, it is vital that records are durable and that information and instructions on the storage are available to future generations.

Until now this has proved a conundrum for managers at the UK Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA) as today’s state-of-the-art electronic storage methods tend to become tomorrow’s obsolete junk and it is far from certain that the guardians of the waste in 1,000 years will have equipment that can read data stored on a PC from 2005.

As well as being vulnerable to capricious advances in technology, digital storage is also prone to corruption.

Until recently taking a more traditional approach to storing the data – writing it down on paper – was also plagued with its own set of problems, as standard recycled paper has a high lignin acid content and will discolour and rot over time.

But for the first time in the nuclear industry managers at Windscale are now taking a leaf out of the ancient Egyptians’ book and using ‘permanent’ paper inspired by the durable papyrus scrolls of the Pharoahs.

Permanent paper can potentially last for centuries as it is acid-free and will not deteriorate or discolour.

The 11,718 sheets copied so far set out details of the intermediate level radioactive waste from the decommissioning of the Windscale Advanced Gas-Cooled Reactor will be protected from the elements in copper-impregnated bags which are in turn stored in special long-life archive boxes.

Two further sets of records for archiving at different locations have also been printed on the paper to mitigate against future loss or disaster.

David Gray, who led the project, said: “Our successors in the years and decades ahead must have access to detailed and reliable records of the stored radioactive waste as part of its long-term, safe management.

“For this reason UKAEA carried out a thorough study of all the options before deciding on the permanent paper solution.

“We worked closely with the radioactive waste agency, Nirex, on this novel solution and we hope that it will now be adopted across the industry.”

By Sam Bond

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