Down to Earth: Lingering Nuclear Waste

19 Aug 2005

Few countries have a concrete plan for disposing of long-lived radioactive waste, but those that do are converging on the same idea: Dig a deep mine, store the material in robust containers, and rely on geology to keep it out of the biosphere for tens of thousands of years. The concept seems simple. But the potential flaws are hotly debated, and only a few projects are under way.

First off the blocks were the United States and Finland, which have actually chosen locations. Yucca Mountain, Nevada, in effect became the official U.S. site in 1987 but has been delayed by continuous legal battles and scientific questions. The Department of Energy (DOE) has spent $5 billion on planning and does not have a target opening date.

About 51,000 metric tons of high-level waste have been earmarked for Yucca Mountain; if all U.S. nuclear power plants run to the end of their current licenses, DOE spokesperson Allen Benson says, the country will have about 120,000 metric tons to dispose of–70% more than the site is legally permitted to hold. But “people are just assuming … the law will be changed, allowing Yucca Mountain to expand,” says geologist Steve Frishman of the Nevada Agency for Nuclear Projects, which monitors the project.

DOE’s design relies on elevation and waste heat to keep water out of the repository, which would be carved into volcanic tuff. But water is its bugbear. Critics say that the site isn’t dry enough, the rock is fractured and leaky, and the oxidizing environment will corrode the waste containers.

Both Finland and Sweden are well along with designs much different from the U.S. approach. Finland is planning a $3 billion repository near the community of Eurajoki on the country’s southwestern coast, and Sweden will choose one of two candidate sites in 2008. Their repositories are to be built in granite and maintain a relatively cool, nonoxidizing environment that could work even if damp. The Swedish and Finnish designs “have vastly reduced the uncertainties” about how well they will contain the waste, says geologist Allison Macfarlane of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge. Eurajoki’s deep-bedrock repository will hold about 5600 tons of waste, 40% more than existing Finnish plants could produce in their lifetimes. Sweden voted in 1980 to phase out nuclear power; if the decision sticks, its $2.5 billion repository will store about 8000 metric tons of waste.

France, Japan, and Russia are exploring possible burial sites but keeping wastes near the surface indefinitely while they decide what to do next. All now reprocess spent fuel to extract usable isotopes, which they argue conserves fuel and reduces waste. But a blue-ribbon review published in 2003 by MIT concluded that, for many decades, reprocessing will cost more than “once-through” use of fuel. And because reprocessing increases the risk that material will be diverted to a dirty bomb or a nuclear weapon, the MIT group argued that it should be stopped.

Many countries hope to reduce waste eventually through “transmutation”: bombarding highly radioactive elements with neutrons to convert them to less threatening isotopes. But this method is expensive, and it may not be practical for decades, if ever.

Russia and some countries with small nuclear programs that would have difficulty funding a repository are exploring the possibility of pooling wastes in shared, multinational repositories. The chief advocate of this approach is the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), in part as a way to help keep dangerous waste under lock and key.

But repository plans everywhere face a significant first hurdle in winning public support, IAEA Director Mohammad ElBaradei has said: “Once the first country has succeeded in placing a geological repository in service, … the road ahead for other countries will be made much easier.” So all eyes are on the groundbreaking projects in the United States, Finland, and Sweden.

Planning for Deep Geologic Repositories
United States
Reprocesses fuel: No
Status: Chose site at Yucca Mountain. Repository being designed.
Opening date: After 2012
Capacity: 70,000 metric tons of spent fuel
Cost: $5 billion spent so far on planning
Reprocesses fuel: No
Status: Site to be chosen in 2008. Repository being designed.
Opening date: 2017
Capacity: 8000 metric tons of spent fuel
Cost: $2.5 billion
Reprocesses fuel: No
Status: Chose site at Olkiluoto. Repository being designed.
Capacity: 5600 metric tons of spent fuel
Cost: $3 billion
Reprocesses fuel: Yes
Status: Studying candidate sites. To decide in 2006 between repository or surface storage.
Opening date: After 2025
Capacity and cost: No estimates
Reprocesses fuel: Yes
Status: Studying candidate sites and designs.
Opening date: After 2025
Capacity and cost: No estimates
Reprocesses fuel: Yes
Status: Seeking candidate sites for a planned repository.
Opening date: Scheduled for 2035
Capacity: Undecided; by 2020 will have 6000 m3 vitrified waste
Cost: $27 billion for 6000 m3 waste
Reprocesses fuel: Yes
Status: Studying candidate sites for a planned repository.
Opening date: Scheduled for 2050
Capacity and cost: No estimates
United Kingdom
Reprocesses fuel: Yes
Status: Reconsidering all disposal options for decision in 2007.
Opening date: Undecided
Capacity: Undecided; existing plants will produce 1500 m3 vitrified waste
Cost: No estimate


books I've read on failure & grace

The World Without Us
The Last Oil Shock: A Survival Guide to the Imminent Extinction of Petroleum Man
A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster
Hell and High Water: Global Warming--the Solution and the Politics--and What We Should Do
The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl
The Tipping Point
Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace... One School at a Time
The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity and the Renewal of Civilization
Out of Poverty: What Works When Traditional Approaches Fail
The Little Ice Age: How Climate Made History, 1300-1850
Confessions of an Eco-Sinner: Tracking Down the Sources of My Stuff
Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future
The Geography of Bliss: One Grump's Search for the Happiest Places in the World

Mason's favorite books »