It’s been over 60 years since the first nuclear power plant was switched on in Russia and exactly 31 years since the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. Yet despite the decades-long history of nuclear power, most countries still haven’t agreed on a way to safely store nuclear waste. Leading the way is Finland with the world’s first permanent repository for spent nuclear fuel. High-level radioactive waste is to be buried 400 metres deep in the granite bedrock of Olkiluoto Island off the Finnish coast, where its operators claim it will be secure for the next 100,000 years. Governments, on the whole, aren’t good at long term planning though. And this is a major problem for the nuclear industry where eventualities must be planned for in terms of hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of years. Teams of artists and philosophers are even debating how to mark repository sites to warn off future generations who may be as removed from us as we are from the first homo sapiens to arrive in Europe. Even the more easily grasped timescales involved in nuclear waste disposal pose huge technical, economic and social challenges. Finland is to start loading the Olkiluoto repository in 2020 and the process is expected to take 100 years. That may seem like a long time, and it is considering that the first observed nuclear reaction was made less than 100 years ago in 1919. Sweden, which is pushing forward with the same technology as Finland, is the only other European country close to such an advanced stage of planning. Favourable geological conditions and relatively small quantities of just one type of waste – spent fuel, without the additional problems of reprocessed waste – mean both countries have advantages over other nuclear nations. For the most part,says Stephen Thomas, emeritus professor of energy policy at Greenwich University, high-level radioactive waste is lying around waiting for a solution. “Around the world, everybody is extending the spent fuel storage and reactors. Find me a reactor that’s been in operation for 20 years and I’ll find you a plant which has had its spent fuel facility increased. Every one. There’s nowhere to put it,” says Thomas. In the UK, Andrew Blowers of independent expert group Nuclear Waste Advisory Associates says the locations of planned reactors pose their own set of problems. “A lot of dangerous spent fuel is going to be stored on new-build sites which are in vulnerable coastal locations, which stacks up to a huge problem for the next century with climate change,” says Blowers. Blowers says Germany’s got one thing right. “What we don’t want is more nuclear waste created when we are not at all sure what we are going to do with what we’ve already got.”
China Dialogue 26th April 2017 read more »
Olkiluoto island, in western Finland, is a flat stretch of land covered by pine trees and bordered on three sides by the Baltic Sea. The nearest town on the mainland is Rauma. With a population of around 34,000, the town is famous for lace-making and colourful, wooden houses. In the middle of Olkiluoto, past kilometres of dark pine trees and a huddle of yellow, blue and grey huts, a metal shutter is set between walls of blasted grey rock. This nondescript doorway is the entrance to something unique: the world’s first – and only – permanent repository for spent fuel. It’s called Onkalo, which means “cavity” in Finnish. In 2010, political pressure forced the US government to abandon its expensive Yucca Mountain repository in Nevada. In 2013, Cumbria County Council voted to reject plans to build a UK facility in West Cumbria. In both instances, the state failed to convince worried locals that their plans for geological disposal were safe and desirable. “It’s the uncertainty that worries us,” says Peter Roche, a campaigner who formerly worked on nuclear issues for Greenpeace and is now a policy adviser for the government organisation Nuclear Free Local Authorities. “Can you ever really know how a certain material will behave in a certain location in 100,000 years time? If you put it down a deep hole and it starts to leak then you have left future generations with something they can’t do anything about.”There are concerns about the safety of this process. According to a paper published in 2012 by researchers at the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, who studied how copper reacts in distilled water, the canisters could corrode within 1,000 years, rather than the 100,000 years estimated by SKB. The Swedish company disagrees with the analysis, arguing that these tests failed to replicate conditions in the bedrock. In addition, they argue, the bentonite and the bedrock will provide future protection for the cannisters.
Wired 24th April 2017 read more »