The Country That’s Solving The Nuclear Waste Problem
by Tony D’Altorio, Investment U Research
Friday, April 22, 2011
We’ve all seen the headlines… read the stories… seen the news…
The nuclear accident at Japan’s Fukushima plant may rival the 1986 Chernobyl disaster. One of the gravest dangers it faces involves the decades’ worth of spent fuel rods crammed into cooling tanks.
Each one contains fatal levels of radioactive isotopes, including several types of plutonium.
The whole mess exposes just how far the world has to go to find a permanent solution for the tens of thousands of tons of high-level radioactive waste stored in temporary facilities.
So far, no country yet has implemented a long-term solution.
Japan’s Solution to Nuclear Waste Disposal
Japan itself has long sought to reprocess its nuclear waste into MOX. That product, a mixed plutonium-uranium fuel, could then feed back into reactors.
The scenario appealed to them because of their location in the Pacific Ring of Fire. As such, the region’s frequent earthquakes make burying nuclear waste underground a foolish endeavor.
But despite good intentions, the Japanese plan suffered under both accidents and delays.
For one, two workers at a reprocessing plant in Tokai died in 1999 when they accidentally mixed buckets of uranium into an unprotected tank. This caused a nuclear chain reaction that spread radiation through the facility.
And another plant in Rokkasho is still not fully operational – 17 years after construction began.
The United States Nuclear Waste Solution
The United States hasn’t done much better in creating a decent solution for nuclear waste.
- Of course, the U.S. does have the world’s only active deep level nuclear waste repository, in New Mexico. But it only takes waste from military weapons research and production.
- Some of what comes from civilian sites is stored in pools such as those at Fukushima.
- Others are relegated to steel containers using a method called dry cask storage.
Billions of dollars went towards planning a permanent repository for civil nuclear waste in Nevada. But President Obama scrapped it amid strong local opposition, as the NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) crowd raised a ruckus.
Opponents said the status quo worked perfectly fine for the time being. They claimed that waste could be “safely” stored for decades using dry cask storage or pools until research found a more permanent solution.
But in the light of the Fukushima disaster, that position looks rather laughable now…
The Swedish Solution to Nuclear Waste Disposal
A continent away, however, Sweden perhaps has the best solution so far for nuclear waste disposal.
After three decades of planning and 15 years trying to win local support, it recently saw a formal application submitted to build a permanent repository for high-level nuclear waste.
If the plan passes, Sweden would become the first country to bury spent nuclear fuel until it is no longer a threat. (Though, admittedly, that process takes at least 100,000 years.)
Right now, the near $3.8 billion proposal depends on the Swedish Radiation Safety Authority’s say-so. If approved, construction will begin at Osthammar, a small town two hours north of Stockholm, near Sweden’s existing low-level nuclear waste disposal site.
- Under the plan, construction on the underground facility would begin in 2015. And the plant would come online in 2020.
- By then, a 5-kilometer ramp will connect 60 kilometers of tunnels covering 4 square kilometers.
- The repository will sit 500 meters below the surface in nearly 2-billion year-old granite bedrock, using a clay buffer for protection.
- As for the spent rod fuels themselves, those will be put into copper canisters, with each holding 12 fuel assemblies.
All told, the facility should hold some 6,000 such containers.
In the end, the entire future of the nuclear industry might depend on the success of this Swedish solution*.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official position of professional analysts*.