It looks like an industrial-scale termite mound, but what you see on these lines is the ambitious idea with which Sweden wants to tackle one of the great problems of nuclear energy: their waste.
The Scandinavian government has given its go-ahead to SKB, the company in charge of nuclear fuel and waste management, to gain capacity with a warehouse that aims to solve the problem during a whopping 100,000 years. The initiative, as detailed by the firm itself, consists of a deposit for spent nuclear fuel in Forsmark, in the municipality of Östhammar; and an encapsulation plant in Oskarshamn. The place is not accidental: Forsmark has been home for several decades to a power station that plays a prominent role in the nation’s electricity supply.
The placet arrived at the beginning of 2022 and throughout the year the company has been sliding different announcements. In December, for example, the Swedish Land and Environment Court granted SKB a permit to expand the SFR repository for low-level waste at Forsmark, with which it hopes to expand its capacity to 180,000 cubic metres. SFR is part of SKB’s final deposit system and – as detailed by the firm – today, waste from nuclear plants or radioactive waste of medical origin is already stored at the facilities.
“Several reactors are being dismantled in Sweden and it is important that the waste has a final destination in Forsmark,” SKB remarks. In December, I expected to submit a new report to the Radiological Safety Authority at early 2023 and thus advance in its processing.
More than 60 kilometers in tunnels
When announcing the approval of the Government, a year ago, SKB calculated that the warehouse will mobilize an investment of about 19,000 million Swedish crowns, the equivalent of 1,800 million euros, and will allow the creation of some 1,500 jobs. “It is a historic decision that allows SKB to dispose of the nuclear waste that our generation has produced. Now we look forward to implementing Sweden’s largest environmental protection project,” CEO Johan Dasht said in a statement.
The planned Forsmark depot will incorporate a gigantic tunnel system that will exceed 60 kilometers of length. Underground, the deposit will cover an extension of three to four square kilometers and will reach a considerable depth of approximately 500 meters.
The design, defends SKB, is the result of research and technological development work that has spanned more than four decades and has benefited from the collaboration of experts, research centers and higher education institutions from Sweden and abroad.
The plan has been commissioned for review by the Radiation Safety Authority and the Land and Environment Tribunal. The municipalities that will host the centers, Ósthammar and Oskarhamn, have also worked on the project. Financially, it will have support from the Nuclear Waste Fund.
However, there is still a long way to go to make it a reality, at the administrative level and on the ground. For now, the company insists that its proposal offers a “safe and secure final solution” and calculates that the construction process of the waste deposit, once it has all the permits from the authorities, will take about a decade.
“Our generation must take responsibility for nuclear waste. This is the result of 40 years of research and they will be safe for 100,000 years”, claimed Annika Strandhall, the former Swedish Minister of the Environment, in 2022, after the approval of the project: “With this, we ensure that we will be able to use our current nuclear energy as part of the transition to become the world’s first non-fossil fuel developed nation.”
Since they came into operation in the 1970s, it is estimated that Swedish nuclear power plants have generated 8,000 tons of waste highly radioactive, including spent fuel. The objective of the new facilities is to house 500 meters underground, in the bedrock, the waste and fuel that the reactors will use until their closure, scheduled for the 2040s. When, after 70 years, the tunnels are full They will be filled with bentonite clay to avoid any risk of water infiltration and the facilities will be sealed.
Forsmark nuclear power plant in Sweden, in a photograph from 2007.
With its decision, Sweden follows in the footsteps of Finland, which has launched a waste plant in Eurajoki, on the country’s southwest coast. Despite the fact that the Swedish government highlights the advantages of the project, the deposit not without controversy. Neither at the political level, nor among the scientific community. The announcement actually comes after years of debate, including in the political and governmental sphere.
Some experts have questioned the storage method, called KBS3, which calls for isolating spent nuclear fuel in copper containers that are then surrounded by bentonite clay and deposited in the network of underground galleries. Greenpeace itself has censured that the authorities ignore the “strong criticism from independent scientists” who warn that the capsules “run the risk of corroding much faster than expected.”
Images: SKB and Anders Sandberg (Flickr)
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