Technical Report NTB 09-04

A Review of the Possible Effects of Hydrogen on Lifetime of Carbon Steel Nuclear Waste Canisters

In Switzerland, the National Cooperative for the Disposal of Radioactive Waste (Nagra) is responsible for developing an effective method for the safe disposal of vitrified high level waste (HLW) and spent fuel. One of the options for disposal canisters is thick-walled carbon steel. The canisters, which would have a diameter of about 1 m and a length of about 3 m (HLW) or about 5 m (spent fuel), will be embedded in horizontal tunnels and surrounded with bentonite clay. The regulatory requirement for the minimum canister lifetime is 1'000 years but demonstration of a minimum lifetime of 10'000 years would be desirable. The pore-water to which the canister will be exposed is of marine origin with about 0.1-0.3 M Cl-. Since hydrogen is generated during the corrosion process, it is necessary to assess the probability of hydrogen assisted cracking modes and to make recommendations to eliminate that probability.

To that aim, key reports detailing projections for the local environment and associated corrosion rate of the waste canister have been evaluated with the focus on the implication for the absorbed hydrogen concentration in the steel. Simple calculations of hydrogen diffusion and accumulation in the inner compartment of the sealed canister indicate that a pressure equivalent to that for gas pockets external to the canister (envisaged to be about 10 MPa) may be attained in the proposed exposure time, an important consideration since it is not possible to modify the internal surface of the closure weld. Current ideas on mechanisms of hydrogen assisted cracking are assessed from which it is concluded that the mechanistic understanding and associated models of hydrogen assisted cracking are insufficient to provide a framework for quantitative prediction for this application. The emphasis then was to identify threshold conditions for cracking and to evaluate the likelihood that these may be exceeded over the lifetime of the containment. Based on an analysis of data in the context of the waste canisters it is concluded that the likelihood of cracking due to absorbed hydrogen is remote. Recommendations are given for selection of steel composition, processing and welding procedures to eliminate effectively the probability of cracking for the assumed operational conditions for the disposal canister.