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PhD in Engineering: Improving the safety and reliability of geological disposal of higher activity radioactive waste via geothermal energy co-production


Project Description

The School of Engineering of the University of Glasgow is seeking a highly motivated graduate to undertake an exciting 3.5-year PhD project entitled ‘Improving the safety and reliability of geological disposal of higher activity radioactive waste via geothermal energy co-production ’ within the Systems, Power and Energy Division.

According to the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, Higher Activity Waste (HAW) includes High Level Waste (HLW), Intermediate Level Waste and some Low Level Waste that is unsuitable for disposal in the Low Level Waste Repository. HLW from re-processing typically occurs in liquid form and is converted into a solid product via a process called ‘vitrification’ prior to long-term storage and disposal. Storage is via canisters placed into an air-cooled store until a suitable disposal route becomes available. A facility would store vitrified HLW for at least 50 years before disposal. The UK Government’s policy for long-term management of HAW is geological disposal, which involves placing waste deep underground in a Geological Disposal Facility (GDF). A GDF includes multiple engineered barriers, several hundred metres underground, constructed in a suitable geological environment to ensure that the radioactivity in the waste is sufficiently isolated and contained that it will not cause harm to people and the environment for many hundreds of thousands of years. There is currently no GDF operating in the UK, but the Government is currently developing a site selection process to find a volunteer host community with suitable geology. The Welsh Government has also decided to adopt a policy of geological disposal for the long-term management of HAW and continues to support the policy of voluntary engagement. Scottish Government policy is that the long-term management of HAW should be in retrievable near-surface facilities close to the origin of the waste.

The temperature of HLW can rise significantly because of its radioactivity. This poses technical challenges when designing a GDF, due to the impact that the released thermal energy could have on the physical and chemical stability of both natural and engineered barriers, with potential consequences for the GDF’s long-term safety and reliability. If the original structure of the rock is altered, for example, it may change a groundwater movement pattern and the transport pathway for radionuclides to the environment. Also, waste glass could undergo devitrification.

This project aims to investigate the potential benefits of controlling the temperature field in a GDF via bespoke, closed-loop geothermal energy recovery systems, where the HAW would act as a high-temperature anthropogenic geothermal source. Geothermal engineering design concepts will be developed and evaluated for potential GDF application taking account of depth, layout, geological characteristics at the site, the radioactivity inventory and the anticipated temperature field development over time. Their impact on the long-term integrity of GDFs will be assessed, as will the amounts of recoverable energy for heat and/or power generation or for use to maintain stable repository conditions, taking account of safety, operational and environmental constraints.

The project provides an ideal opportunity for a highly motivated geoscientist, physical scientist, or engineer to develop solutions to important problems affecting energy and the environment. The studentship will benefit from the doctoral training opportunities of the Graduate School of the college of science and Engineering in Glasgow University. The work will be conducted in the School of Engineering in Glasgow, in collaboration with the Scottish Universities Environmental Research Centre in East Kilbride.

There will also be opportunities to interact with policy makers, regulatory bodies, industry, local authorities and communities.

Funding Notes

The studentship is supported by the School, and it will cover home tuition fees and provide a stipend at the UKRI rate for 3.5 years (est. £14,999 for session 2019/20).

To be eligible for this funding, applicants must have ‘settled status’ in the United Kingdom and must have been ‘ordinarily resident’ for the past three years. EU nationals are generally eligible to receive a fees-only award.

It should be noted that other terms may also apply. For full details about eligibility please visit:

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