Utne Blogs > Environment

Finland’s Nuclear Waste Gamble

 by Keith Goetzman

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

keith goetzman
2/19/2010 10:52:50 AM

Joni and Kriistina, Thank you for pointing out that I inadvertently quoted a passage referring to the current temporary storage site. I have amended my post to fix this error. However, it doesn't change my overall take-away from the IEEE Spectrum story, which indeed contains plenty of informed skepticism. I found the subtitle a bit misleading in this regard. I urge anyone interested in the issue of nuclear storage to read the entire story and judge for themselves. Keith Goetzman

kristiina ahovuori
2/19/2010 5:16:32 AM

Dear Keith, I notice that you are a senior editor in the Utne Reader and you specialize in environmental matters. Therefore I, too, am a bit baffled by your quotation in the story about Finnish nuclear waste storing (Yes, I'm the second Finn commenting this story just because it's a story about Finland). I'm also surprised that you have not (bothered to?) answered to Jenny. I read the entire story on the IEEE website and found the tone of the article actually rather sympathetic about the Finnish storage project - the subtitle was, after all, "Scandinavians are leading the world in the disposal of spent nuclear fuel". I'm really concerned, however, because I've trusted the Utne reader not to mess with their stories as the "normal" press does but your editing seems to prove that I'm wrong. What a shame.

joni hahkala
2/19/2010 4:52:55 AM

Hello Keith, I don't know if it was a mistake or intentional twisting of the quotes or inability to understand the text, but your selected and mismatched quotes give a picture that Upson writes the "The arrangement is far from ideal..." as reference to the Finnish project of burying the waste. But she quite clearly writes that in reference to the current method of storing the waste overground in temporary storage. Do you have something personal against storing the waste properly instead dangerously in temporary storage, or why do you twist the text as being very critical of the project?

grergory cragg_6
2/17/2010 4:57:16 PM

I have a much better storage solution than what is being built here as my solution answers all of the related problems and is much cheaper to build and work with not twenty years try five at the outside and not underground on the surface as my solution is not bothered by geological activity, also my solution can incorporate what is used today dry storage, and lead lined water towers but they are not needed as they would make the costs go way up.