Disposal: Researchers develop first virtual underground laboratory


(Cologne, 25 June 2012) The Federal Institute for Geosciences and Natural Resources (BGR), DBE TECHNOLOGY GmbH, Gesellschaft für Anlagen- und Reaktorsicherheit (GRS) and the Fraunhofer Institute for Factory Operation and Automation (IFF) are currently in the process of developing the world’s first virtual underground research laboratory within the framework of the VIRTUS project.

VIRTUS is not only intended as an instrument for assessing the processes taking place in a repository. With the possibility of 3D-visualisation of the processes, the software platform also aims at contributing to more comprehensible and transparent information to the public. On 28 June 2012, the researchers will present first interim results at the 15th IFF Science Days in Magdeburg.

In a repository for radioactive waste, many different physical and chemical processes take place. These processes - such as the heating of the rock resulting from emplaced waste, possible gas generation, and the retention of radioactive material - are complex. Even more: they interact with each other.

Repository researchers analyse these coupled processes in so-called underground laboratories "in situ", i. e. under natural conditions. Underground laboratories currently exist e.g. in France, Switzerland and Belgium. Until now, German researchers – e. g. the project partners - had to travel to their foreign colleagues to do research in the local underground laboratories. With VIRTUS that could change soon.

VIRTUS as a tool for research
VIRTUS is to provide researchers with the means to carry out virtual experiments in detailed models of repository mines in real geological formations. It will thereby not only be possible to study the processes and their complex interactions in detail but also to represent them visually. In a pilot study, the researchers simulated by way of a test how the heat emanating from the radioactive waste emplaced increases the rock temperature of a geological salt formation.

In the long run, researchers from all over the world are to be able to access the VIRTUS platform, carry out virtual experiments, and exchange results. Another reason why this project - which is sponsored by the German Federal Ministry of Economics and Technology (BMWi) - is interesting for the research community is that it can help in future to visualise processes that are relevant in connection with repositories in clay and granite and thereby add to the work already carried out with regard to salt rock.

The knowledge and experience of more than 40 years of repository research have flown into the development of VIRTUS. The four research institutions involved in its development have pooled their competence in this project: BGR provided the geological and geomechanical data and models for VIRTUS. DBE TECHNOLOY GmbH contributed its knowledge relating to repository planning and from the area of the simulation of geomechanical processes. Acting as project manager, GRS could above all draw from its long-standing experience with the research and modelling of coupled processes in repositories. The expertise of the Fraunhofer IFF in digital engineering and optical 3D measuring technology made the virtual interactive representation of the analysis results possible.

Support in site assessment with VIRTUS
VIRTUS could also play an important role in the assessment of a geological repository site. If one wants to explore the suitability of a possible site, a corresponding repository, i.e. a repository mine complete with the associated installations and the waste emplaced, has to be designed. Only on this basis is it possible to assess the suitability and, as the case may be, demonstrate that it is feasible to store radioactive waste at the site in question over the required one million years and keep it isolated form the environment over this period. VIRTUS is to make the necessary development of a repository concept and the safety analyses more efficient and, above all, more comprehensible by its visualisation.

Involve general public by clear presentation
It is above all the visual representation of experiments and their results that can make VIRTUS an important aid for involving the general public in the search for a repository site. The virtual model enables even laypeople to develop a certain knowledge of the complicated processes that develop in a repository. With VIRTUS, abstract scientific relationships that are rather difficult to formulate in their entirety can be represented in a comprehensible manner in computer graphics. For example, "zooming" through three-dimensional salt domes, past mine structures and drifts filled with casks in which radioactive waste is stored, will become possible. "For us researches", says project manager Tilmann Rothfuchs of GRS "VIRTUS has a very special relevance. With VIRTUS, we will be in a position to show the general public our results in a clear and comprehensible manner and thereby contribute to winning people's trust in our work and to their developing of an understanding of decisions.“
Central press contact of the project partners
Gesellschaft für Anlagen- und Reaktorsicherheit (GRS)
Sven Dokter
Phone: + 49 22 12 06 86 54
E-mail: sven.dokter [at] grs.de (Sven Dokter)