Olkiluoto is different from other idyllic islands off Finland’s west coast. Instead of summer cottages where Finns sunbathe and enjoy saunas under tall birch and pine trees, this is where the nation will store its most toxic nuclear waste for the next 100,000 years.
When Posiva Oy’s Onkalo site opens in 2020, 420 meters (1,378 feet) below ground, it will be the world’s first final store for spent atomic fuel, which the World Nuclear Association estimates at 270,000 metric tons, growing by about 4 percent a year. U.S. President Barack Obama withdrew support in 2009 for a facility at Yucca Mountain in Nevada, leaving the country without a permanent repository plan. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who seeks to exit nuclear power by 2022, is facing political gridlock ahead of a decision on storage in a salt cave 800 meters below the town of Gorleben.
Posiva President Reijo Sundell sees the project as protecting the next generation from the by-products of generating the power that meets about a quarter of Finland’s demand, the 64-year-old said as he showed pictures of his five grandchildren.
“It’s been a 42-year marathon,” Sundell said of the site built in 1.6 billion year-old bedrock. “Implementing final storage of nuclear waste is a political problem, not a technical one and we realize that doing nothing isn’t the answer,” he said on Sept. 25, displaying a layout of the site near the 2.8 mile tunnel entrance.
Finland embraced nuclear power in the 1970s to cut its dependence on imports from the Soviet Union. Lacking the oil and hydropower supplies of neighbors such as Russia and Norway, the country uses atomic energy to supply power to its energy-intensive export industries.
The contribution to the economy from such industries, including pulp production, chemicals and basic metals, is twice the European average, according to the International Energy Agency.
Since the nuclear power use began, Fortum Oyj and Teollisuuden Voima Oyj, Posiva’s owners and operators of the nation’s four reactors, have been planning storage for the waste.
The European Union last year required every member state to comply with the bloc’s new legislation on final nuclear waste storage by August 2013 and to produce detailed plans, cost estimates and time frames by 2015.
It will cost about 10 billion euros ($13 billion) to close Finland’s reactors and store all the waste, Jorma Aurela, senior energy engineer at the country’s economy ministry, said in an interview in Helsinki.
Posiva plans to store 12,000 tons of radioactive fuel, which resembles small black pellets stacked into metal tubes, from seven reactors and will spend the next two years testing water flows and durability. Engineers will then spend five years from 2014 blasting away even more bedrock and open the site in 2020.
Olkiluoto also hosts a lone wind turbine 65 meters high and two nuclear reactors which supply 17 percent of Finland’s power use. A third atomic unit, which will be the world’s biggest, is under construction and a fourth is planned.
“If something happens to the iron cast and copper canister that surrounds the fuel, as well as the bentonite clay buffer, then we’re in trouble,” Janne Laihonen, a Posiva geologist, said as he chauffeured visitors in a minivan through the swirling tunnel into the waste facility. “The worst case scenario is that radioactivity seeps out and contaminates the ground water,” he said.
At the end of the tunnel stand half a dozen vertical shafts, each five feet wide, where waste capsules will be stored. The temperature in the cavern is 15 degrees Celsius (59 degrees Fahrenheit) and the ground is slippery and muddy. The only sound is the humming of power generators that provide artificial light. The air smells of firecrackers.
The bedrock, 75 percent gray gneiss and 25 percent granite, has fractured zones with seeping water.
“We must avoid them, which is a big challenge. A little water flow, but not too much, is ok since the bentonite requires humidity to swell,” Laihonen said.
After a few decades of interim storage in pools adjacent to reactors to cool down after the final reactor has shut, the spent fuel will be encapsulated and sealed away and the tunnels filled up with bentonite clay blocks. The site will be left without guards or security.
“We want to leave the rock in the same condition as it was when we came,” Posiva’s Sundell said. “It’s closed and hidden in the forest. No marks will be left on the surface.”
While Republicans in the U.S. Congress are pressing the Obama administration to resume work on the Yucca Mountain disposal site, 161 kilometers (100 miles) northwest of Las Vegas, the plan is opposed by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat from Nevada.
The Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future, set up by Obama after he abandoned plans for Yucca, urged “prompt efforts” to develop at least one consolidated storage facility, according to a report published on Jan. 26.
“The Energy Department is working on a plan based on the Blue Ribbon Commission’s recommendations,” the Washington-based agency said Oct. 23 in an e-mailed statement.
As the federal government has collected more than $30 billion in payments and interest for the storage, the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners is using lawsuits to force the administration to act. The group, based in Washington, expects Congress to take on the issue after the November presidential elections by writing legislation that would start the process for picking a permanent storage site, Rob Thormeyer, a spokesman, said by phone on Oct. 23.
German Environment Minister Peter Altmaier said it’s “desirable and possible that Germany finds a consensus” across party-lines on identifying a permanent site to store high-level nuclear waste, his ministry said in an Oct. 25 statement.
Altmaier called for a “speedy” process, after the opposition earlier this month rejected his draft bill to enable a new search for a nuclear waste site that, while open to alternatives beyond Gorleben, doesn’t exclude the site in Lower Saxony. A previous government of Social Democrats and Greens blocked research at Gorleben for 10 years through 2010.
Back in Finland, Onkalo “offers a good example that permanent disposal solutions can be found,” International Atomic Energy Agency’s Director General Yukiya Amano told reporters when he visited the site in August. “The disposal site is not theory, but a fact.”