The US state of Nevada has hired mainland researchers to help fend off a federal government plan to build a nuclear waste dump in the south of the state.
The Chinese Academy of Science's Institute of Metal Research (IMR), based in Shenyang , has been contracted by a team of scientists working for Nevada state government. They will provide data relating to a federal government plan to build the United States' only repository for commercial nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain, 160km northwest of Las Vegas.
The US Department of Energy launched the US$58 billion programme in 2002 but environmentalists and Nevada have strongly opposed the project, raising concerns about the transportation of the waste and the prospect of the state becoming a nuclear dumping ground.
The Yucca project is expected to hold about 70,000 tonnes of waste from nuclear power plants across the US. By last year, US$8 billion had been spent on research and the digging of tunnels into the mountain.
Roger Staehle, one of the scientists engaged by the state to challenge the project in licence proceedings before the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, confirmed the Chinese institute was involved in the effort.
IMR professor Dong Junhua said the institute had been employed to examine corrosion problems associated with metal containers expected to hold nuclear waste for hundreds of thousands of years.
Professor Dong said one of the challenges of handling nuclear waste was that after it was removed from the reactor, it could remain hotter than boiling water for centuries and degrade its containers.
A bigger problem discovered recently was that rainwater at Yucca could reach the burial site 300 metres underground, not only increasing the moisture levels but also raising the threat of corrosive acids forming.
Professor Dong said the study's first phase involved determining whether the alloy to be used in the Yucca project was subject to corrosion under specific conditions.
'We will use the latest geographical and meteorological data collected at the project site to simulate an environment as realistically as possible,' he said.
Describing IMR as one of the world's top five material science research institutes, Professor Dong said it would only supply test results, making no conclusion about the project.
'We are only providing data results ... how to interpret them is up to Nevada,' he said.
Beijing Research Institute of Uranium Geology professor Wang Ju, who has visited the site twice, said Yucca was unsuitable because it was a geologically active area, with a number of relatively young volcanoes nearby.
Professor Wang said the repository chamber, although high above the underground water level, could still be exposed to oxygen which could accelerate the 'chemical migration' of some radioactive elements. Studies also suggest the site could become far more moist as a result of climate change.
The Yucca plan is supported by the Bush administration and a US nuclear power industry that wants to build 50 nuclear power plants by 2020 but is hindered by limited space for waste disposal. Professor Wang said despite the site's problems, the US approach had some strengths, including having dedicated government agencies handling the issue, thorough regulations and well-resourced oversight bodies.
'Our peers in the United States have set a good example to the rest of the world,' he said. 'China can learn a lot when building our own repository.' A recent report by the Commission of Science, Technology and Industry for National Defence said China planned to select a permanent nuclear waste deposit site by 2020.