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Radioactive risk

March 22, 2011

Sweden is one of the few countries with plans for an ultimate storage solution for highly radioactive waste. But the Fukushima catastrophe has delivered a blow to the trust in nuclear power.

Nuclear waste barrels
The energy's welcome; the radioactive waste not quiteImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Sweden's three nuclear plants cover around half of the country's electricity needs. In the wake of the catastrophe at the Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan, plans to set up what may become the world’s first final storage site for radioactive waste are running into growing opposition.

So far the radioactive waste has been kept in temporary storage sites but now the industry has for the first time proposed plans for a final storage solution for all spent fuel from Sweden's nuclear power reactors. Stored in 25 ton copper capsules, the nuclear waste is to be buried 500 meters underground. It is now up to the government to approve the controversial plans.

"This project is the result of 30 years of research," said Saida Laarouchi Engström, spokeswoman for the nuclear power company SKB.

"We have looked all over Sweden to find the location for a final storage facility," she said, adding that all possible scenarios ranging from earthquakes to the next ice age have been taken into consideration.

Safe for eternity?

SKB's Copper capsuels
The nuclear waste would be stored in copper capsulesImage: SKB

The location is near the coastal town of Forsmark, some 100 kilometers (62 miles) north of Stockholm. Local authorities have already agreed to the project and the site supposedly is perfectly suited, says Engström. The granite in the ground hardly shows any cracks or fractures.

"The rock is almost 2 million years old. The nuclear material has to be kept in there for 100,000 years - to us that sounds like an incredible long time, but in geological terms, it's really just a blink of the eye," she said.

Should the site be approved by the government, it could start being developed by 2013. By 2020, the site could hold the first copper capsules.

Research vs research

But the plan to bury the radioactive waste for good may not be as safe as SKB presents it to be. Independent research has shown that copper - if stored underground and without oxygen - can disintegrate faster than previously thought.

That would mean the capsules would not be safe in the long run and their dangerous content would get into the groundwater and eventually to the surface.

"In our experiments, we saw that corrosion was 1,000 to 10,000 times faster than SKB assumes in its safety analysis," said Peter Szakalos, materials researcher at the Royal Technical University in Stockholm, who conducted the studies.

The Forsmark site with the planned underground storage
The waste is to be stored 500 meters underground near the site of the Forsmark nuclear plantImage: LAJ Illustration

The nuclear power company rejects those claims, saying that in their own experiments, SKB did not find any proof that the copper would disintegrate. The company belongs to energy giants Eon, Vattenfall and Fortum - all of them trying to promote nuclear energy in Sweden.

"The industry wanted to show that nuclear waste can be easily disposed off," warns Mikael Karlsson, head of the Swedish Society for Nature Conservation. "They early on came to their conclusion and later on have ignored any doubts."

And yet there's mounting criticism from the scientific community, says Karlsson. Environmentalists complain that in choosing the location for the project, only the interests of the industry have been taken into account. The Östhammar community has only accepted the project because it is also home to the nuclear plant at Forsmark.

"But this project comes way too early," Karlsson says. "We urgently need more independent research on it."

With or without nuclear energy

In a 1980 referendum, Sweden voted against nuclear power and since then no new plants have been built or even planned. Yet in 2010, Sweden's conservative government overturned that vote and gave the green light to new reactors and massive new investments. The investments are limited to the existing three plants in Sweden and the idea is to replace the ageing reactors with new facilities on the same sites.

But environmentalists argue that this is a betrayal of the original plan to phase out all nuclear energy. In 1980 the plan had been to do away with nuclear power by the year 2000; later, this deadline was extended by another 10 years until eventually the current conservative government abandoned it completely.

Yet the catastrophe in Japan might just put a brake on those plans, casting doubts on the industry's reassurances that nuclear energy is green and safe. The debate among researchers about the final storage solution has already had its effect - the authorities responsible for granting permission for the project have called an international panel of experts to give their view on the issue.

Author: Alexander Budde /ai
Editor: Michael Lawton

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