Back Story: The Island That Nuclear Waste Calls Home

A drippy trip into a spent-fuel repository in Finland

Photo: Timo Seppälä

Finland is covered with forests,” a Finnish tourism Web site explains helpfully. ”Finns harvest the trees to make paper. And then they use the paper to write sad songs about the life they left behind in the forest.”

Associate Editor Sandra Upson mulled that over as she prepared to depart on her latest assignment. She was about to investigate plans to leave something else behind in the Finnish woods. Guided by printed Google maps (in Swedish), Upson piloted her rented Volvo past 300 kilometers of trees, flickering yellow fields, and an appreciable fraction of the country’s 1.8 million saunas on the journey from Helsinki to Olkiluoto Island.

Olkiluoto is one dot in an archipelago three and a half hours away from the capital. It’s a special dot, because it may well become the first permanent repository for spent nuclear fuel (see "Finland’s Nuclear Waste Solution,” in this issue).

The island, which is also home to two power reactors, is separated from the mainland by little more than a marsh, which is traversed by a bridge. On the island, amid crystalline streams and wild blueberries, Finland’s geologists and engineers are carving an elaborate nuclear trash can into the bedrock.

To check out the tunnel complex, Upson suited up in a helmet, rubber boots, and a reflective jacket; to her waist she clipped a flashlight and an ”oxybox,” which would provide an emergency supply of oxygen. As she and her escorts drove into the tunnel in an all-terrain vehicle, the tall pine trees disappeared behind them and the crisp air grew damp. Far beneath the forest, she sloshed around in muddy puddles, peered into a ventilation shaft, poked at a few giant drilling machines, and then back up they went.

”This island, which seemed incredibly beautiful to me, was so run-of-the-mill to the Finns that they had no trouble turning it into a radioactive dumping ground,” Upson reflects, wondering what sad songs future Finns will write about the beast interred beneath this beauty.

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