With over 400 nuclear reactors operating worldwide today, the problem of nuclear waste has become an international dilemma. Nuclear energy is a source of electricity for 31 countries and provides about 16 percent of the world’s power. Several countries – notably Japan, China and Russia – plan to continue aggressive nuclear reactor construction programs. Others, however, have come to see nuclear power’s toxic byproduct as too great a liability to continue reliance on it as an energy source. Germany, Sweden and Belgium are among the countries that have declared a moratorium on nuclear power. Nevertheless, whether a country decides to build more nuclear power plants or decommission those that already exist in favor of less risky energy alternatives, each of these 31 nations is still left with finding a solution to the problem posed by existing waste.
After years of study, most countries have concluded that permanent geologic burial is the most acceptable solution for the final disposition of high-level nuclear waste. Countries in Europe and Asia also reprocess their nuclear waste. Reprocessing both reduces the volume of nuclear waste and provides uranium and plutonium that can be used to produce more energy. However, some nations regard spent fuel as waste and have rejected reprocessing as a viable option due to economic, environmental, and proliferation concerns. Those countries that do reprocess nuclear waste are planning to entomb the remaining wastes in underground repositories with other high-level wastes that have accumulated. Those that do not reprocess plan to bury their spent fuel as is. In the meantime, the wastes are being kept in various types of interim storage facilities.
The issue of nuclear waste storage and disposal is complex and fraught with controversy. As in the United States, nearly every nuclear waste disposal program around the world has fallen behind schedule due to scientific uncertainty and public opposition. The following is a brief synopsis of how other countries in the world are dealing with their own nuclear waste dilemmas.
Canada’s 14 operating nuclear reactors supply 12 percent of the country’s energy demand. The reactors are owned and operated by the provincial government utilities, which have the primary responsibility for the management of nuclear waste. Canada has identified geologic disposal as its nuclear waste management policy and has no plans to reprocess any of its spent fuel. Atomic Energy of Canada Unlimited (AECL) spent several years researching and developing a repository concept, coming to the conclusion that the waste should be buried in stable granite-like rock formations called plutons, which are found in the Canadian Shield.
However, even though the project was deemed technically safe, strong public opposition at hearings in the potential siting areas of Ontario and Manitoba led the Canadian government to abandon the project. The waste will be kept in an interim storage facility while a new nuclear waste management agency, set up in 1998, examines the potential of other disposal concepts.
The repository was originally scheduled to open in 2025 and take 40 years to fill, but due to siting difficulties, a repository is not expected to be operation before 2035. Currently, Canada is looking into the possibility of initiating a voluntary siting program.
China currently has three operating reactors and plans to significantly increase nuclear power generation in the future. China intends to reprocess all of its spent fuel after a five-year cooling period at the reactor sites. A long-term program has been underway since 1986 to carry out research into the eventual development of a permanent repository for the remaining high-level waste. A central Spent Fuel Wet Storage Facility opened in 2000 in northwest China.
Before permanent underground burial, the wastes left over from reprocessing will be incorporated into glass – a process known as vitrification. Granite has been identified as the preferred rock for disposal of the vitrified high-level waste. China has one candidate site for a repository, the Beishan site located in the Gobi desert in northwest China. Site characterization studies began there in 1989 and are scheduled to continue until 2010. China intends to begin the process to license the site in 2020 with waste disposal beginning in 2040.
Finland’s four nuclear reactors produce 32 percent of its electricity. Finland’s two nuclear power utilities are responsible for the safe management of wastes and for the research and development of a repository. No Finnish spent fuel has been reprocessed since 1996. Currently, it appears that Finland will be the first country to actually begin construction of an underground repository for high-level waste.
After studies of four different locations, the Olkiluoto site, where a low-level waste repository has been in operation since 1992, was deemed the most suitable. The proposed repository will be built on a flexible “design-as-you-go” basis, depending on actual geological conditions found during development.
Finland’s program has been deemed both technically feasible and publicly acceptable. Finland’s nuclear waste policy gives the community near a possible disposal site the right to veto the proposal, however, about 78 percent of the designated site’s surrounding population support the repository project. Once the government gives its expected confirmation of the site, development of an underground research laboratory will begin. Construction of the actual repository will follow in 2010 and last for approximately ten years.
France’s 59 operating nuclear reactors produce 76 percent the country’s electricity, making France the most nuclear-reliant country in the world. Under French law, producers of nuclear waste must arrange and pay for its disposal at a facility approved by the government.
France currently plans to reprocess all of its spent fuel. Cogema’s La Hague plant in northern France reprocesses not only French spent fuel, but fuel from Japan, Switzerland, Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands. Eventually high.level waste, in the form of vitrified glass logs, will be permanently disposed in a deep geologic repository. The waste is currently being stored at reactor sites and reprocessing facilities.
Four potential areas for a geologic repository were initially selected for study. Each had a specific geologic formation: clay in the northern part of the Parisian Basin, granite and shale in western France, and salt in eastern France. After a seven-year long process of public inquiries and technical assessments, it was decided that research should proceed at two sites. An underground laboratory is currently under construction at Bure in the east of France. A granite site is still to be selected but inquiries into potential granite sites were halted last year due to strong local opposition. French law requires that at least two underground research laboratories be developed prior to a final decision on a repository, one in crystalline rock and another in a sedimentary formation. The French parliament is expected to select the final site in 2006.
In 1998, Germany’s coalition government proposed the complete abandonment of nuclear energy. The country is now in the process of phasing out nuclear power, with plans to shut down each of its remaining 19 reactors at the end of their operating lives. Germany has had its spent fuel reprocessed in France and Britain, but as of 2005 all nuclear fuel will be directly disposed of without reprocessing. A 1998 Coalition Agreement stipulates a single repository for all types of nuclear waste, in a rock type yet to be decided.
Interim storage facilities have been built to house spent fuel at Ahaus, near the Dutch border, and at Gorleben. The transportation of spent fuel to these two facilities has been a heated issue in Germany. All nuclear waste transportation was suspended in 1998 after it was found that waste containers were externally contaminated. The German government has since reauthorized shipments, but faced intense opposition from the public and local governments.
Germany had initially intended to investigate only the Gorleben salt dome as a potential site for a geologic repository, but after a significant drop in public support for the project, the entire disposal policy is being re-evaluated. Although geologic disposal remains the preferred option, other rock types will be studied before a siting decision is made. Exploration work at Gorleben has been suspended for three to ten years while other potential repository sites are being identified. Germany plans to begin operations at a repository around 2030.
India currently has 14 nuclear reactors in operation. India intends to reprocess all the spent fuel generated by its nuclear reactors and is currently developing the capability to do so domestically. A “semi-commercial” reprocessing facility is in operation in Kalpakkam, where spent fuel is stored prior to vitrification.
India plans to dispose of its high-level waste in a deep geologic repository after at least 20 years of interim storage. The process of identifying potential sites for a repository is currently underway with crystalline rock as the favored geologic formation to be studied. The Kalpakkam site, underlain by granite, is one of the sites under consideration along with several abandoned mines.
Japan currently has 54 operating nuclear reactors. Japan’s policy is to reprocess its spent nuclear fuel both domestically and abroad at France’s La Hague facility. High-level waste is vitrified and stored underground for 30 to 50 years for cooling. Japan ultimately plans to dispose of the high-level waste in a geologic repository. A Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NUMO) was established in 2000 to oversee this process.
Accepting that the possibility of earthquakes cannot be ruled out at any potential site in Japan, officials are developing repository designs that combine massive engineered barrier systems to complement the surrounding geological environment. In 2004 two sites will be selected for detailed characterization studies. Japan’s tentative target for the commissioning of a repository is sometime in the 2030’s and no later than 2045.
Pakistan has two commercial nuclear reactors. One is located near Karachi in the southern part of the country. The second nuclear power plant, which became fully operational in March of this year, is located near Islamabad, Pakistan’s capital. Nuclear power provides only 1.7 percent of Pakistan’s electricity, but there are plans to greatly expand nuclear capacity in the future. This expansion includes the eventual development of a complete domestic nuclear fuel cycle, including reprocessing.
The Pakistan Nuclear Regulatory Authority was established in January 2001 to oversee the country’s nuclear activities. Currently, all of Pakistan’s spent fuel is stored in pools at the two reactor sites. These storage facilities are expected to be sufficient until 2012. As of yet, there are no plans to build a repository for the long-term storage of high-level nuclear waste.
Russia’s 30 nuclear reactors provide about 15 percent of the country’s electricity. Russia’s nuclear waste policy does allow for reprocessing, but only for spent fuel from certain reactor types. Several concepts for final waste disposal are currently under investigation, including both mined cavity and deep borehole emplacement. Eventually, Russia intends to establish four geologic repositories for high-level waste.
Two potential repository sites were identified in 1996: the Itatskiy and Kamennyi sites, both located in Siberian granite. Investigations are currently taking place at the Kamennyi site, which appears to be the more suitable of the two. Russia has plans to construct an underground laboratory at one of the sites to conduct further research. While site characterization activities are taking place, the waste will be stored in an interim facility for three to ten years and then vitrified prior to disposal.
Sweden currently has 12 reactors which produce about 46 percent of the country’s electricity. In a national referendum in 1980, Sweden voted to phase out nuclear power. Because there will be no future need for recycled nuclear fuel, Sweden has decided against reprocessing. The country has opted instead to bury the waste in a geologic repository, most likely in crystalline bedrock.
Public opposition to a deep geologic repository in Sweden has considerably slowed down the process of locating a suitable site. In the past, protests have halted exploration of several potential sites. The final site designation was originally scheduled to take place in 1997, but now even initial investigations into three potential sites are not expected to begin until 2002. While sites for a permanent repository are being evaluated, Sweden will store its nuclear waste in a central interim storage facility called CLAB. Irradiated fuel is shipped to the facility by sea in order to avoid transportation controversies.
Sweden is also home to an international research project that focuses on the movement of fluids through fractures in granite rock systems. As granite is a common repository rock type, the information about fluid movement is useful for the nuclear technology field.
Switzerland’s five nuclear power plants provide about 39 percent of the country’s electricity. The density of population in Switzerland prevents shallow land burial of any radioactive waste. Therefore, even fairly short-lived low-level wastes have to be buried in a geologic repository. The Wellenberg site is under investigation for the disposal of low-level waste and is a possible candidate for a high-level waste repository as well.
Switzerland sends its spent fuel to facilities in France and Great Britain for reprocessing. The remaining wastes will be stored for 30 to 40 years and then disposed of in a geologic repository. Once a final site is chosen, the concept for a repository must be successfully demonstrated in an underground laboratory onsite. There are currently two different repository concepts, which depend on the type of rock chosen – crystalline rock or clay. Switzerland is planning to have an active nuclear waste repository sometime after 2050. Until a repository is built, the waste will be kept in the ZWILAG interim storage facility in northern Switzerland. Consideration is also being given to cooperative multinational projects.
Twenty-two percent of the United Kingdom’s energy demand is met by nuclear power. The UK reprocesses its spent fuel at Sellafield, a facility operated by British Nuclear Fuels Limited (BNFL), a state-owned corporation responsible for Britain’s high-level waste. As in France, Britain reprocesses both domestic and foreign spent fuels. Currently, high-level nuclear waste is stored onsite at Sellafield in liquid form. BNFL plans to vitrify the waste into glass logs and after a 50-100 year cooling period, permanently bury it in a deep geologic repository.
The British government will make a final decision regarding waste burial sometime during the 50-year cooling period. Up until 1981, a disposal program involving limited exploration into crystalline and sedimentary rock was conducted. Detailed studies took place at a site called Altnabreac, but were abandoned due to intense public opposition. Now only general research is conducted. The British government has recently stressed its commitment to develop a nuclear waste management policy in a transparent and open-minded way to ensure maximum public acceptance before decisions about the future siting of a geologic repository are made.
This report was prepared by the Eureka County Yucca Mountain Information Office for the Fall 2001 edition of the Nuclear Waste Update Newsletter.