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Nuclear waste goes the hole way

Richard Black | 17:52 UK time, Monday, 13 September 2010

First week back from holidays last week, and straight down a big hole in the ground at the BBC's behest.

Onkalo - no ordinary hole...

It's no ordinary hole.

It's where Finland will store all of the high-level waste from its nuclear power programme, if things go according to plan.

I last visited the Onkalo facility four years ago, when the entrance tunnel snaked about a kilometre down into the rock.

Now it's four times that length. It slopes fairly gently downwards because the rock that's being excavated has to come up by truck, so the bottom level is now about 400 metres under the surface - just about the depth at which the canisters of waste would be placed.

The purpose of this visit was recording material for a radio documentary centred on the UK's plans for geological disposal of nuclear waste. (It'll be broadcast next week, and I'll be writing a longer feature then.)

To be honest, the hole in the ground is not quite as interesting at present as the social questions that go alongside it.

And these are questions that are being asked in many countries. 26 have so far opted for geological burial, although no-one is quite as far along as the Finns, who hope to send their first canisters of waste down the Onkalo tunnel in 2020.

Some governments have adopted the approach of deciding where the waste should go and then trying to fight through the legal and political storm that inevitably erupts when people realise what is to go down a hole in their backyard.

It's an approach that doesn't seem to work. A legal judgement derailed the UK's attempts in the 1990s, and in the US it now seems unlikely that the Yucca Mountain repository will store anything more than empty hopes.

In Finland and Sweden, governments took a different tack. They invited communities to come forward and offer to host the long-term disposal facility; when several did, there was a kind of "beauty contest" between rival sites, with the victor in the Finnish process being the Eurajoki district on the west coast, which hosts the Olkiluoto nuclear power station.

Barrels with nuclear waste outside the German parliament

Some countries, such as Germany, are less enthusiastic about nuclear power

Although the volunteering process clearly worked, it does throw up some difficult questions.

Any other such issue that a council might deal with - deciding whether to approve a new supermarket, or waste incinerator - has implications that don't go much beyond the generation making the decision.

But here, the consequences of a bad decision might not materialise for a few thousand generations.

Who knows whether there will be a Eurajoki by then - especially as the already cold tract of Scandinavia could be in the grip of an Ice Age by then?

Can anyone really speak for a locality that far in the future?

Perhaps the current generation of local councillors will be the only one to have to make this decision.

By the time this repository is full, in a century or so, perhaps nuclear technology will have evolved to such a stage that reactors produce virtually no waste - something that US Energy Secretary Stephen Chu floated when discussing the suspension of Yucca Mountain.

Or maybe humanity will have adopted an energy strategy based entirely on renewables. Or maybe someone will have made carbon capture and storage work so well that it becomes the dominant technology.

Who knows?

In an attempt to find communities interested in hosting a repository, both Sweden and Finland offered the possibility of compensation - "sweeteners", if you want to be cynical.

But what could governments realistically offer that would bring benefits to the locality for as long as the store lasts?

These are the kinds of question that make nuclear power qualitatively different from just about every other part of the energy and climate puzzle that many governments are struggling to solve at the moment.

And as Stephen Chu hinted, projecting what solutions improved nuclear technology may bring is even harder than forecasting what may happen to a tube of nuclear waste buried in rock as an icesheet several kilometres thick spreads overhead.

Finland, where people appear to pride themselves on their pragmatism, is happy in the face of these uncertainties to make its choices - "yes" to new nuclear reactors, "yes" to a hole in which to bury the waste.

The electricity keeps flowing, the greenhouse gas emissions from producing that electricity stay low.

Other countries find it harder to take such decisions. Is that just shilly-shallying? Or, given all the unknowns, is that actually the pragmatic approach?


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