Nuclear waste will remain dangerous for more than 100,000 years – so what are countries and producers doing to deal with this problem? Passing the buck, apparently: so far, not a single facility to safely store spent nuclear fuel has been created in Europe, or the world for that matter. Silvia Weko takes a look.
Who is responsible for nuclear waste?
The issue of what to do with spent nuclear fuel has been on the table for more than forty years, but producers have yet to figure out a solution. The European Union stepped up after the Fukushima disaster: in 2011, the EU Nuclear Waste Directive declared that the producer is in fact responsible for its waste, which must be disposed of in the member state where it is produced.
For the first time in 2011, EU member states were urged to provide a plan for their radioactive waste disposal to the EU Commission, the goal of which was to encourage transparency and common standards throughout Europe. National plans were to be presented on August 23, 2015; the final reports were so badly prepared that the EU and Euratom were shocked, said MEP Rebecca Harms.
In fact, the EU could not come up with a sum of how many tons of radioactive waste existed on the continent – estimates range from 300,000 to 450,000 tons. This is partially because member states use their own national criteria when reporting, calling some waste “stored” or “disposed” when it is neither. In addition, some member states did not categorize materials that are radioactive as such (e.g. waste from uranium mining).
In addition, this process made clear that many European countries had no plans what they would do with radioactive waste and how to dispose of it. For example, the Czech Republic suggested using steel and granite repositories, which have been rejected as by Swedish experts. Overall, member states have made no progress on disposing of their radioactive waste safely. A 2017 report for the European Commission reveals that there are no disposal facilities for spent nuclear fuel operational in the EU, which is becoming problematic as the volume of waste increases. It cannot be understated how much of a security risk this presents for member states and Europe as a whole, given that radiation does not respect borders.
The European Commission has taken the lead by requiring that states present “adequate information” on their disposal plans every three years. But MEP Rebecca Harms seems pessimistic about decisions on final nuclear waste repositories being taken before the year 2075. She points out that the fundamental organization of waste disposal is still being discussed forty years later, even in “advanced” countries like Sweden and Switzerland.
The Swedish example
So let’s take a look at how an “advanced” country – Sweden – is dealing with radioactive waste. Its first research nuclear reactor was built in 1954, with commercial power plant operation beginning in the 1970s. And yet, there is still no final repository for spent fuel, simply because there’s realistically no technology that can keep such dangerous materials contained for more than 100,000 years.
Sweden follows the polluter-pays principle when it comes to nuclear waste: a fee per kWh of generated electricity is paid into the state-controlled Nuclear Waste Fund, which is responsible for managing and disposing of spent fuel. This fee is recalculated every 3 years and has been increasing fast (from around 0.4 to 0.6 €cent/kWh for 2018-2020). In addition, the Swedish nuclear industry is responsible for identifying sites and methods for final disposal of radioactive waste. The reactor operators have created a private company, the Swedish Nuclear Fuel and Waste Management Company (SKB) to develop a method to safely dispose of spent nuclear fuel.
SKB’s proposed method for a final waste repository would use copper waste canisters and clay buffers, deposited in tunnels 500 meters underground in granite bedrock. However, experiments from the University of Stockholm have shown that the copper canisters corroded between 1,000 to 10,0000 times faster than SKB had initially estimated. The regulator has of course denied these findings, even though internal documents leaked to the media showing internal criticism of this stance.
Following this controversy, the Swedish Environmental Court recommended that the government deny the license permit unless the technological issue of copper corrosion was resolved. However, should the government decide to go ahead regardless, the community where nuclear waste would be stored has a possibility to veto the decision.
The location of radioactive waste depositories is often a political and not technological decision, says Andrew Blowers. Blowers is a former Bedford, UK County Councilor who fought back when his community was proposed as a site for a radioactive waste dump, and has since examined how waste repositories are chosen in the UK and abroad. Waste is usually located in “peripheral” places, which are geographically remote and economically marginal; in addition, they are often politically powerless and already environmentally degraded, leading to a kind of cultural resignation and acceptance of nuclear waste.
These communities, like Hanford in the US or Sellafield in the UK, are exposed to environmental risks because they are already the “periphery,” while other communities refuse to accept nuclear waste. This leads to a pattern of spatial and intergenerational inequality.
So how should waste repositories be determined? The fairest and safest way is to look geographically for locations that have right geological conditions, as was the process in Sweden. Yet unlike the process in Germany to designate Gorleben as a waste facility, this process must be democratic and fair. It must happen quickly, as waste presents a real security risk for Europe as a whole.
Nuclear waste disposal is an incredibly complex issue, and one that producers must be forced to reckon with. If they cannot do so, which seems to be the case, then it’s yet another reason to stop using nuclear power altogether and transition to renewable energy.