In 2008, following the general French plan for nuclear waste management, Électricité de France attempted to find for irradiated graphite an alternative solution to direct storage at the low-activity long-life storage center in France managed by the national agency for wastes (ANDRA). EDF management requested that its engineering arm, EDF CIDEN, study the graphite treatment alternatives to direct storage.

In mid-2008, this study revealed the potential advantage for EDF to use a steam reforming process known as THermal Organic Reduction, “THOR” (owned by Studsvik, Inc., USA), to treat or destroy the graphite matrix and limit the quantity of secondary waste to be stored. In late 2009, EDF began a test program with Studsvik to determine if the THOR steam reforming process could be used to destroy the graphite. The program also sought to determine if the graphite could be treated to release the bulk of activity while minimizing the gasification of the bulk mass of the graphite.

In October 2009, tests with non-irradiated graphite were completed and demonstrated destruction of a graphite matrix by the THOR process at satisfactory rates. After gasifying the graphite, focus shifted to the effect of roasting graphite at high temperatures in inert gases with low concentrations of oxidizing gases to preferentially remove volatile radionuclides while minimizing the graphite mass loss to 5%. A radioactive graphite sleeve was imported from France to the US for these tests. Completed in April 2010, ‘Phase I’ of testing showed that the process removed >99% of H-3 and 46% of C-14 with <6% mass loss. Completed in September 2011, ‘Phase II’ testing achieved increased removals as high as 80% C-14. During Phase II, it was also discovered that roasting in a reducing atmosphere helped to limit the oxidation of the graphite.

Future work seeks to explore the effects of reducing gases to limit the bulk oxidation of graphite. If the graphite could be decontaminated of long-lived radionuclides up to 95% for C-14 while minimizing mass loss to <5%, this would minimize the volume of any secondary waste streams and potentially lower the waste class of the larger bulk of graphite. Alternatively, if up to 95% decontamination of C-14 is achieved, the graphite may be completely gasified which could result in lower disposal volumes.

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