Tag Archives: nuclear waste permanent disposal

The Nuclearized People

copper canister for spent nuclear fuel, Finland. Image from http://www.posiva.fi/en/final_disposal/basics_of_the_final_disposal/machinery#.WaWPwciGPIU

The Onkalo Nuclear Repository, Finland: Buried in holes in the floor will be copper canisters, 5.2 metres long, containing the remains of some of the world’s most radioactive nuclear waste. When the drilling is finished, in a century or so, 3,250 canisters each containing half a tonne of spent fuel will be buried in up to 70km of tunnels. Then the entire area will be sealed to make it safe for posterity.

The hundred-year timescale already means this is a megaproject. But that is just the beginning. The radioactive isotopes of plutonium used in nuclear-power plants must be stored for tens of thousands of years before they are safe. Finland aims to isolate its stockpile in the Onkalo repository, a burial chamber beneath the small forested island of Olkiluoto, home to one of its two nuclear-power plants, for at least 100,000 years.

In geological terms, that is a heartbeat; Finland’s bedrock is 1.9bn years old. But in human terms, 4,000 generations are almost inconceivable. As Mika Pohjonen, the managing director of Posiva, the utility-owned Finnish company overseeing the project, says, no one knows whether humans, creatures (or machines) will rule the Earth above by then—let alone whether they will be able to read today’s safety manuals. A hundred thousand years ago, Finland was under an ice sheet and Homo sapiens had not yet reached Europe….

But Posiva’s immediate priority is to create disposal caverns far enough from rock fissures and groundwater that Finland’s nuclear authorities allow it to start moving the canisters to their tomb in the early 2020s. “This is drilling with silk gloves on,” Mr Pohjonen says, as the machine pounds the rock with a deafening roar. “It has to be done gently.”

The disposal of nuclear fuel is among the most intractable of infrastructure projects. And there are already 266,000 tonnes of it in storage around the world, about 70,000 tonnes more than there were a decade ago. As Markku Lehtonen, a Finnish academic at the University of Sussex, puts it, the costs are high; the benefits are about avoiding harm rather than adding value; and evaluation is not about assessing risk, but about dealing with “uncertainty, ambiguity and ignorance” over a protracted timescale….

Finland began the search for a site in 1983, shortly after it began generating nuclear power, and chose Olkiluoto after reviewing 100 areas. It has mapped faults and fissures in the bedrock, and sited the repository in a seismic “quiet zone”. It says it will avoid burying canisters close to potential pressure points, to minimise the danger that rock movements would crush or tear the canisters and cause radioactive leakage. Finland’s Radiation and Nuclear Safety Authority (STUK) called Posiva’s analysis of the bedrock and groundwater “state of the art”…

But whether in crystalline granite, as in Finland and Sweden, or clay, as in France, or volcanic rock, as in Yucca Mountain, nuclear experts are confident that deep geological disposal can be safe. “There is a great deal of evidence that we can find many sites in the world with adequate geological properties for the required safety,” says Stefan Mayer, a waste-disposal expert at the IAEA.

Technology is the next hurdle. As well as 400-500 metres of bedrock between the canisters and the surface, there will be several man-made layers: steel, copper, water-absorbent bentonite clay around the canisters, and bentonite plugs sealing the caverns and, eventually, the access tunnel…. Some academics…are worried that the Finnish media have underplayed concerns about copper corrosion, compared with other countries with similar “multi-barrier” protection systems.

The trickiest challenge, though, is to build broader societal consent. Finland appears to have succeeded by starting early and sticking to its timetable. The decision to find a site and start disposing of nuclear waste in the 2020s was taken 40 years ago. In 1994 its parliament banned the import and export of spent nuclear fuel, which increased the pressure to find a home-grown solution. Few other countries have demonstrated the same determination. The good news is that, because waste needs to be cooled in tanks for 30-50 years before being disposed of, emerging nuclear powerhouses such as China have time to prepare.

Finns’ trust in their nuclear industry has remained high, despite accidents elsewhere, such as those at Chernobyl in 1986 and Fukushima in 2011. Finland’s four nuclear reactors operate at among the world’s highest utilisation rates, and supply 26% of its electricity. Its two nuclear utilities, TVO and Fortum, which co-own Posiva, are themselves part of an electricity system in which Finnish industries and many municipalities have a stake, bolstering public support. The Onkalo repository is situated next door to TVO’s two working Olkiluoto reactors, which means people nearby are—in the phrase of academics—“nuclearised”, that is, convinced of the benefits of nuclear power. Surveys suggest positive attitudes to nuclear power nationally exceed negative ones.

Some academics worry that Finland is taking waste disposal too much on faith. Any mishap could erode trust in an instant, as happened in Japan, another “high-trust” society, after the Fukushima disaster.,,

Other countries, including America and France, follow principles of reversibility or retrievability, meaning they can reverse the disposal process while it is under way or retrieve waste after burial, if technologies and social attitudes change. Finland’s model is more closed; it would take a huge amount of digging to recover the waste once it has been sealed. But analysts say there is no single correct approach. Britain, for instance, has done things by the book but still failed to find a place for a repository.

Finally, there is the matter of cost. Finland’s nuclear-waste kitty, collected from the utilities, currently stands at €2.5bn ($2.7bn). By the time it is closed, the price is expected to be €3.5bn. That is reassuringly modest for a 100-year project, partly reflecting the fact that Finland’s nuclear industry, even when the planned total of five reactors are up and running, is relatively small. Other countries have higher costs, and less discipline. Yucca Mountain, for instance, was once estimated to cost $96bn to complete. In 2012 America had $27bn in its disposal fund, collected from ratepayers, none of which has gone towards nuclear-waste management.

Excerpts Disposing Nuclear Waste: To the Next Ice Age and Beyond, Economist, Apr. 15, 2017

The Near-Near Future of Nuclear Waste

Temelin Nuclear Power Plant, Czech Republic. Image from wikipedia

Czech plans for dealing with nuclear waste have been put under the spotlight once again thanks to a European Commission warning calling for the country to outline its plans for deal with nuclear waste. The Czech Republic was last week one of five states which the Commission said had failed to pass on their long-term nuclear waste plans by the original deadline of August 2015. The other countries include, somewhat ironically, largely non-nuclear Austria, Italy, Portugal, and Croatia.

The Czech Republic has around 10,000 tonnes of high radioactive nuclear waste, mostly stemming from the spent fuel of its nuclear power plants which begin operating in the mid-1980s, but also from other civil activities. The spent fuel is stored on site at nuclear power plants but the barrels containing it will wear out long before the contents become safe.

The Czech Republic set out a strategy to deal with high radioactive nuclear waste already in 2002 with the main focus on finding a deep storage site. The preliminary search has been focused on seven localities which are reckoned to be geologically suitable as well as near the Dukovany nuclear power plant. But there have been vociferous public protests at most of the sites causing the current government to back down and promise that no steps will be taken in the face of opposition. Even so, a timeline for choosing a deep repository has already been set with the selection of a site due to take place in 2025, construction started in 2050, and the final facility ready by 2065.

But the aged 2002 strategy is now being updated with public consultation part of the process. Environmentalists on one side argue that the existing framework focused primarily on the search for a deep repository should be overhauled and that the country should take its time and keep its options option with technological advancement likely offering other options for radioactive waste in the near future. 

Excerpts from BRUSSELS CALLS FOR CZECH STRATEGY FOR RADIOACTIVE WASTE, Radio Prague, July 24, 2017

Nuclear Waste in the Seabed, Sweden

SFR disposal nuclear waste. Two disposal sites (gray existing, blue proposed) and their connection with above-the-ground facilities. image from http://www.skb.com/our-operations/sfr/

Sweden keeps its radioactive operational waste SKB’s Final Repository for Short-Lived Radioactive Waste is located at Forsmark in the municipality of Östhammar. The facility started operating in 1988 and was then the first of its kind in the world.  The radioactive waste deposited in the SFR is low and medium level waste. This means that unlike spent nuclear fuel it does not have to be cooled and is relatively short-lived.  The SFR is situated 50 metres below the bottom of the Baltic and comprises four 160-metre long rock vaults and a chamber in the bedrock with a 50-metre high concrete silo for the most radioactive waste.  Two parallel kilometre-long access tunnels link the facility to the surface.  Except from http://www.skb.com/our-operations/sfr/

Closing Down Nuclear Plants in the United States

pilgrim nuclear plant image from US NRC

In Massachusetts, residents who live near Entergy Corporation’s Pilgrim Generating Station, worry about health and environmental threats from the spent radioactive fuel that remains at the plant once the power plant closes. And they’re not being quiet about it.  “My house is six miles across open water from the reactor,” says Mary Lampert, the director of the citizen group Pilgrim Watch. “I can see it from my house, which is real motivation to get to work on the very serious issues that threaten our communities.”  Lampert says she and her fellow activists celebrated when they heard that Entergy had decided to close the plant, but their joy was short-lived when they learned about the continued presence of radioactive waste….because no state wants to be a permanent repository,” Lampert says.

Nonetheless, Makhijani says, while decommissioning is risky, because parts of the reactors are highly radioactive, it is less risky for the surrounding public in compared to operating an aging nuclear plant.  “There are mainly two different kinds of big risks associated with nuclear power,” Makhijani explains. “One of them we have seen dramatically in Fukushima: the operating nuclear reactor fails, has a meltdown and [there is] a massive release of radioactivity. That is the risk that goes away when you shut down the nuclear reactor and remove the fuel.”There are risks associated with removing the fuel because some of it is still very hot and needs to be cooled. A loss of coolant, for example, could lead to fires. But as the fuel gets older, it cools down significantly and these risks decline, Makhijani says. “If you thin out these pools and have dry storage, the risks to the surrounding population become quite low,” he explains.

Entergy Corporation says it has set aside nearly a billion dollars to decommission the plant and to protect public health and safety.

Excerpt, Adam Wernick, Even plans to close nuclear power plants stir controversy, PRI,  Nov. 21, 201

Maybe Someday: what to do with nuclear waste

Nuclear Plant Locations in the US. Image from wikipedia

The problem now, however, is civilian waste from power plants that came online in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. Nuclear power generates a fifth of America’s electricity; its 99 reactors account for almost a third of all nuclear power generated worldwide. Five more are under construction—the first to be approved since the 1970s—partly thanks to federal loan guarantees intended to boost clean energy production. The waste they generate has been stored safely, but it will stay dangerously radioactive for tens of thousands of years. That requires a longer-term plan than leaving it outside, however well encased in concrete.
Under the 1982 Nuclear Waste Policy Act, the federal government pledged to dispose of nuclear waste—both civilian and military—permanently. Several possible plans were drawn up, many involving burying the waste in salt deposits deep under ground. To pay for this eventual cost, a levy was added to the bills of consumers of nuclear power.

But politics got in the way. In 1987 Congress determined that only one place, Yucca Mountain in Nevada, would be considered. This, says Richard Stewart of New York University Law School, was the result of a stich-up between two congressmen who did not want their states to host waste dumps. Tom Foley, the then House majority leader, and Jim Wright, the Speaker, blocked proposals for sites in their home states of Washington and Texas.

Nevadans nickname the 1987 amendment the “screw Nevada” bill, and they have fiercely resisted implementation. Some $15 billion has been spent on building the repository at Yucca Mountain, but no waste has been moved there. Nevadans are quick to point to the damage done to their state by nuclear-weapons tests. Since 2010, the Department of Energy has formally ruled the facility out. In a lawsuit in 2013, the government was forced to stop collecting the levy on nuclear power until a plan exists for a permanent site. It has also been forced to pay utility companies for the costs of storing waste temporarily, since it did not start collecting waste fuel in 1998, as the original law dictated.

Some hope Yucca Mountain might be reopened by a new president. “The only aspect of used fuel in this country that has been problematic is the politics”, says John Keeley of the Nuclear Energy Institute, an industry lobby group. In January the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the regulator, concluded that the site is safe for the disposal of waste. But the worries of Nevadans—that moving spent fuel on railways might lead to spills, or that radioactivity could leak into the environment—remain.

Recent experience doesn’t help. America already operates one of the world’s few deep storage sites for radioactive waste—near Carlsbad, in New Mexico. It stores waste mostly from nuclear-weapons production. In February 2014 the facility suffered two crippling accidents. One was apparently caused by workers packaging waste with the wrong sort of cat litter. The plant-based “Swheat Scoop” brand they used, unlike the mineral-based kind they were meant to, did not absorb radioactivity very well. The facility has not accepted any new waste since.

Excerpts from Nuclear Waste: Faff and fallout, Economist, August 29, 2015, at 23

Kitty Litter and Nuclear Waste do Not Mix: from Los Alamos to WIPP

kitty litter

The US energy department is to fund $73m in road and other infrastructure projects in New Mexico as compensation for radiation leaks at a nuclear laboratory and underground dump.The deal struck between the department and New Mexico forgoes fines and instead applies funds to upgrade federal nuclear facilities and surrounding communities in the state, according to settlement documents.  Projects include construction of a $5m emergency operations centre in Carlsbad, near where the nuclear waste dump leaked radiation in February 2014.

The leak at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, or Wipp, exposed 22 workers to radiation in amounts not expected to threaten their health and led to the indefinite suspension of key operations at the site, which is the energy department’s only permanent underground disposal facility for certain types of waste from US nuclear labs.The radiation accident was caused by “chemically incompatible” contents, including cat litter, which reacted in a barrel of waste and caused it to rupture, according to a federal probe of the mishap.  The breached drum containing radioisotopes such as plutonium was improperly packaged with the wrong sort of absorbent litter at the Los Alamos National Laboratory near Santa Fe before it arrived at WIPP for disposal, investigators found….

The deal includes $34m to improve roads around the Wipp site, $12m to improve nuclear waste transportation routes in and around Los Alamos, and $9.5m in stormwater management upgrades at the lab’s complex.In addition it provides $10m for improvements to water infrastructure in and around Los Alamos and $2.75m for an independent compliance and operational review. Energy department officials have estimated the cost of the initial recovery of the dump at $240m and that it might be two years or more before it is fully operational.

Excerpts from New Mexico radiation accident: $73m compensation deal struck over leak, Guardian, Apr. 30, 2015

Management of Nuclear Waste in Germany

Nuclear Power plant Brunsbüttel.  Image from wikipedia

Inspectors in northern Germany have found that a third of barrels containing radioactive waste at a decommissioned nuclear plant are damaged, the Schleswig-Holstein Environment Ministry said on Thursday.  Vattenfall, the energy company which manages the Brunsbüttel site in Schlewswig-Holstein, reported that 102 of the 335 barrels stored in the site’s six underground chambers were corroded, leaking or had loose lids.  Some of the containers are so deformed that they can no longer be moved, as they no longer fit into the robotic gripping arms installed at the site, the inspectors reported.  “The chambers are secure and there is no danger for the personnel or the local population,” Vattenfall said in a statement released on Thursday,

The Brunsbüttel site harbours 631 barrels of nuclear waste in its six chambers, which have been used for storing waste since 1979. The nuclear power plant was decommissioned in 2011.  The barrels contain resin used for water filters, residue from contaminated water and various other types of waste.

So far, Vattenfall has only inspected four of the six chambers using remote cameras.  The chambers themselves are built from concrete and have walls over a metre thick to prevent radiation escaping into the surrounding environment.  The energy company has sent a proposal to the Schlewsig-Holstein Environment Ministry for making the storage facility more secure, including by installing dehumidifiers to slow corrosion, which has yet to be approved by government experts.  “The chambers [at Brunsbüttel] were supposed to be a temporary storage facility,” Vattenfall said in a statement on Thursday. “They weren’t designed to for long-term containment.”

It was originally planned to store the barrels at Brunsbüttel until they were moved to the ‘Konrad’ mine shaft site in Lower Saxony.This permanent storage facility was to be completed by the mid- to late 90s, but has been subject to successive delays. Completion dates in 2014 has been missed and a target of 2019 is also unlikely.  The latest estimate for completion is the start of the next decade.

One in three nuclear waste barrels damaged, The Local Germany, Oct. 10, 2014