Finland Works, Quietly, to Bury Its Nuclear Reactor Waste via The New York Times

OLKILUOTO ISLAND, Finland — Beneath a forested patch of land on the Gulf of Bothnia, at the bottom of a steep tunnel that winds for three miles through granite bedrock, Finland is getting ready to entomb its nuclear waste.

If all goes well, sometime early in the next decade the first of what will be nearly 3,000 sealed copper canisters, each up to 17 feet long and containing about two tons of spent reactor fuel from Finland’s nuclear power industry, will be lowered into a vertical borehole in a side tunnel about 1,400 feet underground. As more canisters are buried, the holes and tunnels — up to 20 miles of them — will be packed with clay and eventually abandoned.

The fuel, which contains plutonium and other products of nuclear fission, will remain radioactive for tens of thousands of years — time enough for a new ice age and other epochal events. But between the two-inch-thick copper, the clay and the surrounding ancient granite, officials say, there should be no risk of contamination to future generations.


The repository, called Onkalo and estimated to cost about 3.5 billion euros (currently about $3.9 billion) over the century or so that it will take to fill it, will be the world’s first permanent disposal site for commercial reactor fuel. With the support of the local municipality and the national government, the project has progressed relatively smoothly for years.


The municipality also had experience with nuclear power: Two of the country’s four operating nuclear power reactors are on Olkiluoto, less than two miles from the repository, and a third plant is under construction nearby.


At the Onkalo site, workers drill into the bedrock down near the 1,400-foot level, taking cores to study the characteristics of the granite. Above ground, near the curving entrance to the tunnel, construction has begun on a building where the spent fuel, currently cooling in pools at the Olkiluoto reactors, will be readied for burial, handled by remote-controlled machinery since radiation levels will be high. Spent fuel will also eventually be shipped here from Fortum’s reactors, on the country’s southeastern coast.

Kimmo Kemppainen, research manager for the project, said that in characterizing and mapping the rock, it was important to locate, and avoid, fractures where water could flow, since the disposal site was below the water table. But even if water gets near a canister, he said, the clay should form a barrier and keep corrosion of the copper — which could result in a radiation leak — to a minimum, even over tens of thousands of years.

“You have a community that is familiar with nuclear issues,” said Dr. Ewing at Stanford.

Nevada, by contrast, has no nuclear power plants. What it does have is a history of government testing of atomic weapons, both in the air and underground, for four decades until the early 1990s.


The project at Yucca Mountain, in the Mojave Desert about 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas, has been studied for years at a cost of more than $13 billion. In 2008, the Energy Department began the process of obtaining a construction license from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. But the Obama administration moved to withdraw the license application two years later.

With the election of President Trump, advocates for Yucca Mountain saw a chance to revive it.


Even without Mr. Reid, most members of Nevada’s congressional delegation are still vowing to fight the project, arguing that there are concerns about the long-term safety of drinking water supplies — unlike the Finnish repository, the Nevada site sits above the water table — and that above all, Nevadans do not want it.

Read more at Finland Works, Quietly, to Bury Its Nuclear Reactor Waste 

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