“The failure to properly address waste disposal in the first decades of nuclear energy development has left a legacy of doubt in the minds of the public and politicians over its overall safety.”
The above quote comes from Tomihiro Taniguchi, the deputy director general for nuclear safety and security at the International Atomic Energy Agency, who was speaking at a conference in Bern in October. He adds, “If this doubt is not ameliorated soon, it could well lead to all the ambitious plans to expand the use of nuclear power on a global scale being significantly delayed.”
Around the world, waste and spent fuel are stored on an interim basis in pools of water or in casks, many near ground level. That leads to concerns about the vulnerability of the materials to disasters like terrorist attacks, and it raises persistent questions about whether the materials can be effectively monitored for periods that exceed recorded human history many times over.
Firing neutrons at waste in a process called transmutation shortens the time needed for radioactivity to decay. Reprocessing spent fuel reduces its volume and its toxicity. But neither procedure eliminates waste entirely. So international officials like Taniguchi say permanent disposal in a combination of clay and rock, or in salt domes, is the best option for isolating these long-term residues.
Finland’s deep disposal site / Yucca mountain delays
Posiva, a waste disposal company owned by Finnish nuclear operators, is digging a tunnel at Olkiluoto, an island in the west of Finland, in anticipation of final approval for storing waste underground at a depth of 500 meters, or 1,640 feet. Burial could begin in 2020. That could make the site the first of its kind in the world, demonstrating to opponents of nuclear power that long-term disposal is feasible, and helping the Finnish nuclear industry save money on storage in future decades.
But the Finnish case is exceptional. Many residents in the Olkiluoto area accept nuclear facilities because there are already nuclear power plants on the island that provide employment and hefty tax revenue. The local geology also turned out to be favorable.
For decades, the U.S. authorities have sought to put high-level waste inside Yucca Mountain. President George W. Bush approved the process in 2002, but Nevada’s governor vetoed the plan. Although Congress overrode that veto and government officials say they could open a site there by 2017 if all goes according to schedule, few people consider that timetable realistic.The prospect of sustained opposition from Nevada has left U.S. officials hinting at the need to restrict transparency in the future.
Japan’s failure to subsidize a deep burial site
In Japan, which generates a third of its electricity at nuclear plants and where the authorities are aiming to raise that proportion, the central government is offering annual subsidies of as much as ¥2 billion, or $17.3 million, to municipalities that volunteer to be considered as disposal sites.
In January, Toyo, a rural town in southern Japan, was the first to apply for the subsidies. But some town assembly members and residents, as well as neighboring local governments, protested. Toyo’s mayor, Yasuoki Tashima, who backed the project, called an early election to seek endorsement for his plan, but it was overwhelmingly rejected. His successor promptly withdrew the application, saying that the town had narrowly avoided a “reckless act.”
Kenji Ogiwara, deputy minister of economy, trade and industry, said no other municipalities had applied since the failure of the Toyo project. Ogiwara, who spoke at the Bern conference, also seemed to say that the Japanese government should get tougher, nominating sites rather than waiting for volunteers.
Finally, to the Swiss
Voters in Nidwalden, a canton of Switzerland, rebuffed the government twice, in 1995 and in 2002, on plans to bury waste at a site there. After those setbacks, Switzerland passed a law that took effect in 2005 depriving cantons of the right to veto plans to bury waste but allowing for a national vote on the final selection of a site.
Clearly governments across the world are beginning to run out of options on where best to put current and future nuclear waste. Their frustration appears to be leading to the creation of undemocratic and draconian laws designed to take any discussion of siting waste away from their voters.
Maybe the way for voters to deal with this is to vote out such governments.