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Finland’s Nuclear Waste Gamble

2/17/2010 2:17:38 PM

Tags: Environment, energy, international, nuclear, nuclear waste, IEEE Spectrum, Keith Goetzman

Onkalo storage facility design

On an island in the Baltic Sea, Finland is building what it calls a permanent underground repository for spent nuclear fuel—but that depends on your definition of permanent. IEEE Spectrum writer Sandra Upson takes a trip to Olkiluoto Island to report on the construction of the Onkalo facility, bringing a science-literate but smartly skeptical view to her topic:

Posiva, the Finnish company building an underground repository here, says it knows how to imprison nuclear waste for 100,000 years. These multimillennial thinkers are confident that copper canisters of Scandinavian design, tucked into that bedrock, will isolate the waste in an underground cavern impervious to whatever the future brings: sinking permafrost, rising water, earthquakes, copper-eating microbes, or oblivious land developers in the year 25,000. If the Finnish government agrees—a decision is expected by 2012—this site will become the world’s first deep, permanent repository for spent nuclear fuel.

The plan has its doubters. “It’s deep hubris to think you can contain it,” Charles McCombie, executive director of the Switzerland-based Association for Regional and International Underground Storage, tells IEEE Spectrum.

Upson notes that the island’s residents welcomed the storage facility and the jobs it will bring, but also that

Their confidence that the project will be safe and well managed is unusual and not strongly supported by the historical record of government handling of other forms of high-level nuclear waste.

The United States, Upson points out, has finally canceled funding for a storage facility at Yucca Mountain, Nevada (even as it hands out new nuclear plant loan guarantees), and Sweden is building a “less advanced” facility—leaving the Finnish site as a leader and a bellwether for the success of such repositiories worldwide. The $4.5 billion project, she writes,

will either demonstrate that the technical, social, and political challenges of nuclear waste disposal can be met in a democratic society, or it will scare other such countries away from the repository idea for decades to come.

Correction: This post was revised since it was first published to correct an error. The third through fifth paragraphs are new.

Source: IEEE Spectrum

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