NUCLEAR WASTE II: DESTINATION UNKNOWN
There is only one final high-level nuclear waste repository under construction anywhere in the world – in Onkalo, Finland. Meanwhile more than 350,000 tonnes of high-level radioactive waste has already been generated globally, and this number increases by another 10,000 tonnes each year.
The first nuclear chain reaction took place in Chicago on December 2, 1942, as part of the Manhattan Project. On that fateful day, the first cupful of high-level radioactive waste was produced – for eternity. No plan was made then to dispose of this new type of waste. It was a problem to be solved later. Now it is “later” and there remains no permanent, safe, long-term solution for its disposal. What we know: a final storage site or disposal site for high-level radioactive nuclear waste must be secure for at least a million years, the timeframe during which radioactive waste poses a deadly risk. What we also know: mankind has absolutely no experience in planning for periods of such long duration.
It is very difficult to research data relating to nuclear waste, since the IAEA and the WNA do not make information publicly available. Countries with reprocessing plants are able to significantly reduce the volume of high-level radioactive nuclear waste, but reprocessing also hugely increases the amount of intermediate-level radioactive waste.
In 1987, the US Congress settled on a single site for the creation of a “permanent disposal site” – at Yucca Mountain in Nevada. At least 70,000 tonnes of high-level radioactive waste was supposed to be stored in the repository, which is located on the territory of the Western Shoshone. The state of Nevada, as well as the Western Shoshone, rejected the Yucca project and were supported by many environmental and anti-nuclear groups. The area is volcanically active. All high-level radioactive waste sits at the country’s reactor sites: 82,796 tonnes of spent fuel and 22,280 canisters of resolidified liquid waste, or vitrified liquid waste (2020). The Yucca Mountain project was officially canceled in 2011. Yucca Mountain could still be revived.
While Russia has a final storage site for low- and intermediate-level waste, it is still in the exploratory phase for a high-level radioactive waste site. The Nishnekansky rock massif in the Krasnoyarsk region of Siberia is a potential option. The geological conditions are currently being assessed. If this site is considered un-suitable, then Russia will have to go back to the drawing board. Nuclear waste is managed by the nuclear industry. High-level radioactive waste is often stored out in the open without any kind of protection: 22,449 tonnes of spent fuel and 18,640 cubic meters of liquid waste (2016). Krasnoyarsk is the only site being explored.
France intends to store its high-level radioactive waste in a clay rock formation 500 meters deep, near Bure in the Lorraine region. The tiny village of just 90 inhabitants voiced strong objections from the moment the plans were made public. As there are persistent doubts about the Bure location, the French government has not yet granted final approval. However, plans for alternative sites have been abandoned. The government wants waste to be recoverable for 100 years. As long as there is no final repository, radioactive waste is stored at La Hague: 9,681 tonnes of spent fuel, 3,200 cubic meters of liquid waste, 14,555 containers with vitrified nuclear waste (2015). Fundamental doubts regarding the Bure site.
In order to come up with a selection process for a final storage site for high-level radioactive waste, Germany has set up a “Final Storage Commission”. The commission is trying to determine the most suitable location in Germany. Currently, high-level radioactive waste is stored in Castor containers above ground. It will take decades to find and complete a final storage site. 17,000 tonnes (Anticipated by end of 2022). A decision could take decades.
Japan has a fundamental problem: its islands sit on four intersecting tectonic plates, so there is no guarantee that any rock layer will remain stable for a million years. Since nuclear energy has become extremely unpopular in Japan after the Fukushima disaster, no region is willing to take the nuclear waste. Japan’s nuclear industry has no idea how to solve the problem. The high-level radioactive nuclear waste is stored in above-ground intermediate storage sites. 16,889 tonnes as well as 415 cubic meters of liquid waste (March 2014). After Fukushima, all sites underwent stress tests. Too seismically active to be safe.
Sweden began its search for a disposal site in 1977. The Swedish Nuclear Fuel and Waste Management Company, which was in charge of the search, selected the Forsmark site, 120 kilometers north of Stockholm, with a crystalline rock layer at a depth of 500 meters. There is already a nuclear power plant with three reactors in Forsmark. There is almost no resistance from the population in the area. For now, the nuclear waste - 6,758 tonnes (End of 2016) is stored in the vicinity of the Oskarshamn nuclear power plant.
Forsmark chosen as the final storage site
The Lake District National Park in Cumbria remains the favored site for a radio-active waste repository, although it has been strongly opposed, largely because the area is geologically fragile. But when the UK's 15 nuclear reactors are all finally closed and decommissioned, there will be at least 4.77 million cubic meters of radioactive waste to dispose of - mostly high- and intermediate-level. High-level radioactive nuclear waste - 10,500 tonnes (April 2016) - is stored above ground at several locations, most of it at the reprocessing plant in Sellafield. No political or public consensus on Cumbria
China is the only country still building and opening new nuclear reactors in any significant numbers. Consequently, the amount of high-level radioactive nuclear waste is increasing. The government is exploring the possibility of building a final storage site deep underground near Xinchang in the Gobi Desert in the north-west of the country. So far, no decision has been taken. In China, irradiated nuclear fuel - 3,973 tonnes (End of 2013) - is stored in temporary regional storage sites. The state-run CNNC is in charge of operations. The Gobi Desert is the targeted location.
Onkalo means “cavity” and is the name of the Finnish deep underground final repository. It is located on the “nuclear peninsula” Olkiluoto, which already hosts two nuclear reactors. In 2015, the Finnish government granted a license for the construction of a final storage site in deep rock strata. The site is designed to hold 6,500 tonnes of nuclear waste, with storage operations expected to commence in the 2020s. Until the final underground repository is commissioned, all nuclear waste is temporarily stored at the Olkiluoto site. 6,000 tonnes (total projected amount). Onkalo is supposed to be completed in 2020.
The last nuclear power plant is supposed to go offline in 2034. By then, the country will likely have accumulated 4,300 tonnes of high-level radioactive waste and another 92,000 cubic meters of low-and intermediate-level nuclear waste. In 1995 and 2002, Swiss citizens rejected two final storage sites. Currently, new sites for high-level radioactive nuclear waste are being considered, in Jura Ost, north of Lägern and Zürich Nordost. Final storage will begin in 2050 at the earliest. Until then, nuclear waste is stored in an interim storage site and at the nuclear plant sites. 4,300 tonnes (projected by 2034). Three sites in the running: Jura Ost, north of Lägern, Zürich Nordost.
In the late 1990s, the idea of building a final disposal site for all of the world’s nuclear waste (“Pangea”) emerged in Australia. At the time, an alliance of environmentalists and Aboriginal people, on whose land the repository was to be constructed, prevented the project. The idea was resurrected in 2015, but after massive protests in 2017, it was again abandoned. Australian activists continue to monitor for any renewed moves to push this disposal option. Australia does not operate nuclear power plants and therefore has no high-level radioactive nuclear waste to dispose of. The project failed due to community opposition.