Sweden becomes the first country in the world to approve a definitive storage system for civil nuclear waste. It doesn’t come without criticism.
Sweden Minister for Climate and Environment approved on January 27 the construction of a final repository of nuclear waste near a nuclear power plant in Forsmark, in the southeast of Sweden.
“Sweden and Finland are the first countries in the world to take responsibility for nuclear waste,” said Annika Strandhäll, the Minister for Climate and Environment during a press conference.
The Swedish government is the first in the world to approve the construction of an encapsulation plant and a final repository for spent nuclear fuel.
Spent nuclear fuel is used nuclear fuel that has been irradiated in a nuclear reactor. It is hot and very radioactive. As such, it is placed in closed water-cooling pools for several years. The radiation gradually decays and the waste becomes progressively less dangerous before being stored elsewhere.
For the minister, it is “irresponsible to leave nuclear waste in water tanks for years”.
Moreover, Sweden’s current interim storage facility hosts close to 7,3000 tonnes of spent nuclear fuel and has the capacity to store up to 11,000 tonnes. But as Sweden plans to intensify the use of nuclear energy to become carbon neutral, the storage facility could soon be full.
With the new system, there is no need for an interim facility as nuclear waste will be directly encapsulated and buried underground.
The encapsulation system will isolate 12,000 tonnes of nuclear waste into 6,000 canisters made of copper and cast iron. The capsules will then go into the repository where they will be stored in chambers dug in bedrock and covered by clay.
The repository system consists of tunnels of over 60 kilometers (37 mi) about 500 meters deep (1,600 ft) spread across 3 km2 (1.1 sq mi).
SKB, the Swedish Nuclear Fuel and Waste Management Company, will be in charge of the project which will cost about SEK19 billion (US$2 billion) and create 1,500 jobs.
The government considers the method will be “safe for 100,000 years”.
Concerns about the nuclear waste repository method
Building a final repository has been discussed for decades and the permit process started in 2011, but the matter still is controversial.
In a country with weak majority coalitions leading to political instability, the Liberals and the Christian Democrats threatened the government with a vote of no confidence if it didn’t accept the final repository.
Some worry that little is known about how nuclear waste will react encapsulated during those 100,000 years. Researchers warn capsules may not even be safe in 100 years. Furthermore, the repository has never been tested under real conditions.
In 2018, the Land and Environment Court ruled that there was uncertainty about the corrosion of the capsules and needed more material to avoid leaks.
For the Green Party, the government decision is hasty as there is still a lot of uncertainty with the method.
The Environment Minister said the project was as safe as it could be with current knowledge but that it could very well be adapted if research makes progress.
Another source of conflict is the nearby population who usually doesn’t feel safe being next to such large plants full of nuclear waste.
No other country than Sweden has fully adopted the solution of a final repository yet.
Finland has started the construction of a similar system but the Finnish government still hasn’t approved it, according to an expert from the Swedish Radiation Protection Authority who spoke to SVT News. The United States has a repository but only for waste from military weapons. France processes nuclear waste but is still in the early phase of a repository.
The Land and Environmental Court is now taking over the case. It will decide on construction permits and stipulate detailed conditions for the operation to respect the Environmental Code.
Construction will not start before 2023 and the plant could become operational in the 2030s.