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Finns embrace nuclear waste

Teri Schultz Eurajoki, Finland
August 11, 2022

Finland is building the world's first permanent disposal site for nuclear waste. As Teri Schultz finds, there's no shortage of people wanting to be its neighbors.

Olkiluoto nuclear waste site in Finland
The Olkiluoto nuclear island near Eurajoki contains three reactors and the world's first permanent storage site for high-level radioactive wasteImage: Tapani Karjanlahti, Posiva

It's inconceivable to people in most parts of the world that anyone would actively want to live near a nuclear waste site. But in the western Finnish town of Eurajoki, there's no NIMBYism ("Not In My Backyard") as the municipality actually campaigned against other cities to have the disposal site located there, next to the existing Olkiluoto nuclear power plant.

Authorities determined that this area had best mix of a bedrock of public support and actual bedrock to become spent nuclear fuel's final resting place, almost half a kilometer underground.

Don't worry, be Finnish?

Mayor Vesa Lakaniemi explains that being home to three reactors and the repository — called Onkalo, which means "little cave" in Finnish — provides long-term security for his residents. Real-estate taxes from the nuclear site bring in about 20 million euros per year, almost half the municipality's annual revenue.

"That's how we can plan our future investments," Lakaniemi says. He gestures to the school that's just been renovated behind city hall and a large new library just across the parking lot, explaining that an eight-million euro sports facility is in the works. "When you have steady income, it's much easier to plan those those future investments. And of course, it's it's very big thing for us that we can also also have very good services for our inhabitants, schools and and health care."

Lakaniemi notes the particularly Finnish characteristic of citizens having high levels of trust in their authorities, but he emphasizes that's been earned here over the last four decades of incident-free nuclear plant management and extensive outreach by Olkiluoto to residents. In addition, he notes, the two decades of planning for the Onkalo repository did not start with politicians.

"First scientists and engineers and experts in that area figure out how it is secure to do final disposal," he explained. "After that came political decision-making and and I think that's the only right way to do it."

Tests of time

Johanna Hansen is one of those scientists. The geologist with Posiva, the waste-management company responsible for Onkalo, has been working on the project half her life. Deep in one of Onkalo's tunnels, Hansen marvels that this bedrock is two billion years old and explains that its stability is what made this location geophysically ideal for the site.

Posiva workers stand in one of the Onkalo tunnels
Posiva Communications Director Pasi Tuohimaa and Geologist Johanna Hansen check out progress in an Onkalo tunnel half a kilometer below ground.Image: Teri Schultz/DW

Spent nuclear fuel from Finland's two power plants will be transported to the site, then transferred into steel canisters at the above-ground part of the facility. Those are put into copper capsules and lowered meters into the carved-out bedrock, where they are packed in bentonite, with the tunnel backfilled and sealed.

Hansen says while there's a lot of confidence already that the system is nearly ready to go, it will still be tested for the next couple of years to "ensure that also in the far future that there are no pathways to the surface. So this facility will store the canisters for 100,00 years."

With obvious pride, she adds, "It's of course nice to see that here in Finland we can show an example also for other countries."

Boost from Brussels

And there are more countries showing interest lately, due in part to the European Union's decision to designate nuclear power as a "green fuel” and to its increasing desire to reduce energy dependence on Russia as it wages war on Ukraine.

Pasi Tuohimaa, head of communications for Posiva, says the EU decision was important to help change other countries' views on nuclear power in general. The potential for a safe permanent solution for waste adds to the appeal. Sweden decided earlier this year to build a site based on the same principles as Onkalo. Tuohimaa expects others will follow suit, and said he's watching the polls move in Germany too.

"A lot of people say, 'okay, nuclear is good, but then you have this waste of used nuclear fuel,'" he explained. "What we are saying is that, no, that's not true. We do have the solution for that, and it's completely safe."

Finns flock just for fun

Of course, that's been an easy sell domestically for decades. "[Finnish] environmentalists already support nuclear power, which is quite remarkable," Tuohimaa said.

People board a bus for a tour of the Olkiluoto nuclear facility.
Thousands of Finns take a tour of the Olkiluoto nuclear facility every year. It’s the region’s second most popular tourist site.Image: Teri Schultz/DW

Far from being afraid, Finns come to the Olkiluoto power plant for tours. Heli Blomroos, whose family has a summer house nearby, brought her young son Juho, hoping to spark his interest in the nuclear industry as a career.

She is somewhat shocked to be asked if she's concerned about environmental risks from the nuclear site, saying it had not occurred to her — "no, never!"

Blomroos is confident authorities have taken all the necessary precautions. "I trust my fellow citizens. They are professionals in this — they can do it in a safe way," she said. "And it's the first one in the world so it's great!"

Edited by: Rob Mudge

Finland nuclear waste animation

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