“I just ended up here because I liked science and was always good at maths,” was a modest statement from Meyrem Sari as she began a lecture to the UK Institute of Physics Nuclear Industry Group on her work at the UK’s Radioactive Waste Management organisation.
Born in a remote Anatolian village in the Mediterranean region of Turkey, Meyrem came to the UK at the age of 14. After overcoming the initial language barrier and re-taking her GCSE exams, her academic career got into its stride.
Her Physics teacher, Raj Perera, told Meyrem, “If you can do physics you can do anything.” And do physics she certainly could, earning a Bachelor’s degree in the subject and then a Master of Science degree in radiation and environmental protection.
She then began a career of over ten years in the nuclear industry, starting as a consultant, supporting a variety of projects in decommissioning, radioactive waste management and radiological protection. She held various roles on Winfrith and Harwell nuclear sites in England and Chapelcross and Dounreay sites in Scotland.
This broad experience led Meyrem to her current role, as a waste management specialist at RWM, the organisation responsible for finding a suitable host site, building and operating the UK’s future deep geological disposal facility (GDF). Meyrem’s work involves assessing whether the higher activity radioactive wastes are being packaged suitably in readiness for disposal in the GDF, which is currently planned to be ready to receive packaged waste in 2040.
GDF design involves isolating and containing waste hundreds of metres below ground in solid rock for generations to come, so the actual packaging of the waste plays a key role in that. “For waste to be accepted to the GDF it needs to meet certain criteria,” she says, “and if we do all that work now it means we won’t have to repackage again in the future. So we make sure the packages are suitable and the risk of having to package it again is minimal.”
Meyrem’s team does 17 different evaluations to produce an overall report. “What the container design is, the nature of the waste, what form it is in, how it has been treated it to get it in a passive form, how it performs in an accident scenario, how it will react with the container, how it will evolve in the long term, and so on…” Because the GDF will probably not be available for about 20 years, current storage methods are also part of the assessment. “And we look at how it will be compliant with transport regulations because it will have to go on public roads. We need to protect the people handling the packages as well as the environment,” she says.
Considering that ultimately the GDF will be closed, Meyrem’s team has to consider the degradation of the waste package over very long timescales. “How would radionuclides, other hazardous substances and non-hazardous pollutants behave within the engineered and natural barrier systems – is there anything there that exceeds the criteria?”
Meyrem performs some of the technical areas of work and has responsibility to compile all the inputs from the multi-disciplinary work areas into the concluding assessment report. If the package meets the criteria then the waste producers are issued with a letter of compliance, otherwise there will be a dialogue about the improvements waste producers need to make to meet RWM’s requirements.
One important consideration is to store all the relevant underpinning information and data about each of the waste packages: what the waste is, how it has been treated, what the container is made of and so on. That way, our descendants will be able to make informed decisions for managing the wate packages in the future; for example, should they need to repackage or move the waste for any reason.
“It’s an interesting job,” says Meyrem, “Every waste is different, the problems are all different and there are a lot of challenges. There is chemistry, geology, materials science, engineering… so, although I’m not an expert in those areas I have developed an understanding. I learn loads every day and it’s great working with multi-disciplinary teams”.