The only solution for nuclear energy's radioactive waste: Bury the problem

By James Kanter, International Herald Tribune

Nov. 7 , 2007, WÜRENLINGEN, Switzerland: Sweeping his hand across the surface of a warm cask heated by some of the most radioactive material on earth, Walter Heep said he was confident that the contents could be kept safely and securely above ground for the next few decades.

Asked what might happen beyond that time frame - particularly if Swiss voters continue to reject proposals to bury nuclear waste permanently at a deep underground site - Heep was blunt about the problems that the lack of such a site would present for the future of the nuclear industry in Switzerland.

"We are not planning on a plan B," said Heep, the chief executive of Zwilag, a company that safeguards waste from the country's five reactors in storage buildings here in Würenlingen, near the border with Germany. "We need a final repository in Switzerland."

Because the production of nuclear energy generates virtually no carbon dioxide, the industry around the world is trying to ride a wave of enthusiasm for "green" sources of power at a time when demand for energy is surging. But a huge obstacle remains: More than a half-century after the opening of the first commercial reactor, there still is no permanent disposal site anywhere for highly radioactive waste of the kind that Heep oversees.

The industry and many governments are seeking to entomb the waste - the long-delayed Yucca Mountain project in the U.S. state of Nevada is the most prominent example - but public aversion to nuclear facilities remains strong, making it hard to find suitable sites and dampening the industry's hopes for a so-called nuclear renaissance.

"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," Tomihiro Taniguchi, the deputy director general for nuclear safety and security at the International Atomic Energy Agency, said at a conference in Bern in October. "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.

Waste like spent fuel contains materials that can take up to one million years to degrade to a state of negligible toxicity.

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.

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.

Elsewhere, similar efforts face seemingly implacable opposition.

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. Winning local support is "a noble objective," said Edward Sproat 3rd, the director of the Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management, an arm of the Energy Department. He added that "if you set your program up so that local acceptance is an absolute necessity to site your repository, I'm not going to say you will fail, but you should be prepared to fail."

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.

In France last year, in an effort to increase public acceptance after widespread protests in the 1980s against burial, legislators made such plans contingent on the ability of future generations to exhume waste. The law in France - which relies on nuclear plants for more than 80 percent of its electricity and has one of the largest accumulations of waste in Europe - was written to allow for other means of disposal if new technology comes along.

Still, some experts warn that those requirements make sites more costly to maintain and could actually undermine the viability of underground storage.

"The idea is that at some point you'll seal the shaft and walk away because you can't guarantee monitoring for hundreds, let alone thousands, of years," said Simon Webster, the head of a unit responsible for nuclear fission at the European Commission, the executive arm of the European Union.  "Leaving a channel of escape into the biosphere could be self-defeating."

At Zwilag, the Swiss company, the interim storage site overseen by Heep and owned by four Swiss nuclear operators, the temperature of high-level waste inside the casks is about 300 degrees Celsius, or 572 degrees Fahrenheit. Thoroughly insulated, the casks give out a steady warmth, similar to the heat that comes from a household radiator. Openings in the walls of the storage building allow fresh air to circulate around the casks and up through the roof, even during warm weather, removing the heat without spreading radioactivity, Heep said.

There is plenty of room for more casks at Zwilag, which is not expected to fill up until much later this century. But the industry may need all the space it can get if opponents continue to find ways to stop burials.

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.

"We think that's not fair," said Jean-Jacques Fasnacht, a doctor who lives in Zürcher Weinland, one of several areas that the Swiss authorities are studying as a future waste site. "We worry that people living in Geneva won't be concerned about what happens in the north of Switzerland."

Fasnacht, co-president of a Swiss anti-nuclear group, KLAR Schweiz, is joining forces with similar groups in France, Germany and Austria to raise money for scientific studies aimed at convincing voters that buried waste would remain vulnerable to terrorist attacks and radiation leaks provoked by geological changes