Finland’s 100-year plan for burying nuclear waste

Finland’s 100-year plan for burying nuclear waste

Beneath a forested patch of land on the Gulf of Bothnia, at the bottom of a steep tunnel that winds for three miles through granite bedrock, Finland is getting ready to entomb its nuclear waste.

If all goes well, sometime early in the next decade the first of what will be nearly 3,000 sealed copper canisters, each up to 17ft long and containing about two tons of spent reactor fuel from Finland’s nuclear power industry, will be lowered into a vertical borehole in a side tunnel about 1,400 feet underground. As more canisters are buried, the holes and tunnels – up to 20 miles of them – will be packed with clay and eventually abandoned.

The fuel, which contains plutonium and other products of nuclear fission, will remain radioactive for tens of thousands of years – time enough for a new ice age and other epochal events. But between the 2-inch-thick copper, the clay and the surrounding ancient granite, officials say, there should be no risk of contamination to future generations.

“We are pretty confident we have done our business right,” says Timo Aikas, a former executive with Posiva, the company behind the project. “It seems the Olkiluoto bedrock is good for safe disposal.”

The Onkalo repository is expected to cost around £3bn over the century or so that it will take to fill it – it will be the world’s first permanent disposal site for commercial reactor fuel. With the support of the local municipality and the national government, the project has progressed relatively smoothly for years.

That is a marked contrast to similar efforts in other countries – most notably in the US where there have been efforts to create a deep repository in Nevada. The Yucca Mountain project, which would handle spent fuel that is currently stored at 75 reactor sites around the country, faced political opposition from Nevada politicians for years and was defunded by the Obama administration in 2009.

Now, with the backing of the nuclear power industry the Trump administration wants to take the project out of mothballs. But its fate remains uncertain.

Experts in nuclear waste management say the success of the Finnish project is due in part to how it was initially showcased to the people whose lives would be most affected by it. Each community under consideration as a repository location was consulted and promised veto power should it be selected.

In 1987 Washington pre-emptively directed that only Yucca Mountain be studied as a potential site, effectively overruling opponents in Nevada who were worried that the project might affect water supplies or otherwise contaminate the region.

“When you look at the Finnish repository, it’s natural to admire the technical accomplishment,” says Rodney C Ewing, professor of nuclear security at Stanford University. “But of equal importance has been the social accomplishment.”

Posiva’s Timo Aikas, who was involved in the Finnish site selection process beginning in the 1980s, says he and his colleagues learned early lessons about the need to consult local residents.

“We ran into difficulties because we tried to behave as industry did back then – we’d decide and announce,” he says. Invariably, he adds, by presenting decisions as unreviewable, they ran into local opposition.

“Very soon we learned that we had to be very open,” says Aikas. “This openness and transparency creates trust.”

When five sites were selected for further study 30 years ago, offices were opened in each community to provide information.

The approach proved so successful that when it came time for the national government to make a final decision on a repository in 2000, officials in Eurajoki, the municipality that includes Olkiluoto Island, agreed to host it on one condition: that Posiva would not present the government an option to choose any other site.

Source: Independent

Date: February 2018

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