Wes Myers
Wes Myers. Photo by Alon Ron
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Japan's nuclear emergency added dimensions to a recent talk by American geologist Wes Myers at the Geologic Institute in Jerusalem, though the talk had been planned a long time prior to the tsunami and the disaster at the Fukushima power station.

Myers spoke before an audience of scientists and senior officials of the National Infrastructure Ministry about constructing nuclear reactors underground that would, in his opinion, make them safer in the eyes of experts and reassure the general public as well.

Myers, a veteran scientist at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in the U.S., has analyzed the various options for reactors built deep under the surface of the earth, as well as underground facilities for the treatment of nuclear waste. He emphasized that the concept is one that he himself is studying and advancing, and that it is not part of the program that has been adopted by the U.S. government.

The lecture aroused a great deal of interest among Israel members of the audience, since the most practical site in Israel for a potential nuclear power plant is underground, for security reasons.

(What follows is a paraphrasing of the interview, which was given in English. )

Dr. Myers, why examine alternative sites for the construction of nuclear reactors?

Nuclear reactors create safety problems during the course of their operation. But there are additional issues, such as how to treat the radioactive waste they produce, and how to deal with public concern, especially that of citizens who live far from the reactors. One of the most interesting things we learned in our studies is that, paradoxically, people who live near reactors are less afraid of them. Among other things, they work at the reactors, or they know people who work in them. What also sped up an interest in alternatives were the events of September 11, 2001, which aroused concern about terror attacks on nuclear facilities. At the same time there was a need to find solutions for nuclear waste.

What is the idea you are studying?

I and several other researchers would like to advance a thorough and detailed study of the possibility of constructing an underground reactor, in a suitable layer of rock. This would be a reactor located at a depth of 100 to 300 meters, accessible via a special tunnel. It is possible that some parts of the installation would be above ground, but the core would be deep underground. Of course it would be necessary to specially seal the entrance.

What are the advantages of such a reactor over those in operation today?

The reactor would be safer in terms of various mishaps or attempts at sabotage. It would of course be more secure from terror attacks, but also more secure in case of [an operating] failure. I estimate that even in the case of the worst type of failure, the danger of emitting significant amounts of radioactive materials is much smaller when we are talking about an underground reactor.

A layer of earth is what seals and contains it. In addition, it will be easier for the public to accept the existence of such a reactor.

How can these reactors fit into the regular production of electricity?

I am talking about things that are still on the conceptual level and obviously many tests must be conducted, both engineering and financial. In principle, the average reactor produces up to 300 megawatts.

There is also an idea to create a subterranean industrial park of a group of reactors, a facility for storing used rods, and one for storing and treating nuclear waste.

How relevant is such a reactor to Israel?

I'm not up on the specifics in Israel but I think that if you find the correct [kind of] rock [layer], in an area where there is no question of endangering the groundwater supply, it is possible to erect a number of these reactors which could produce a significant amount of electricity up to several thousand megawatts.

Has this ever been tried before?

There was an underground reactor that produced electricity for a city in the former Soviet Union so a model that worked in the past does exist. The state of California examined the construction of such a reactor without actually building one, and the conclusion was that it would significantly reduce the dangers. The California study was discontinued because a failure occurred in an American reactor and all reactor development was suspended.

What are the main obstacles to building such a reactor?

The main one is the high cost of such a structure underground, and it very well may be that the idea will be rejected in the future based on economic considerations. But we have already seen that costs can be reduced. One of the main ways it saves money is that an underground reactor does not require the costly shields we have around existing reactors.

As well, we save on expenses on the transfer and treatment of nuclear waste and also have the opportunity to process the waste and reuse it to operate the reactor. Means of digging are improving all the time and it is possible that these costs will go down. Furthermore, we must remember that today we have to dismantle all reactors that cease operations, while this reactor would remain buried underground.

What about this reactor's ability to withstand earthquakes?

Also from this angle I estimate that underground reactors will be safer due to the characteristics of the rock layer at this depth during an earthquake. In addition it is possible to locate water cooling systems underground so that in case of a particularly large event, the system can go on functioning."

Has the Fukushima plant disaster increased interest in underground reactors?

There is a definite possibility that people will show more interest in the subject. There is a new generation of reactors being planned, known as the fourth generation, and I am very impressed by the plans for them and the safety measures they have in comparison with existing reactors.

But you must remember that these aboveground reactors too are planned with a certain amount of events in mind and if something happens that was not taken into account in advance, if it happens underground, you are in a better situation.