A correction to this article was made 15 December 2009.
Here on Olkiluoto Island, the forest is king. Elk and deer graze near sun-dappled rivers and shimmering streams, and humans search out blueberries and chanterelle mushrooms. Weathered red farmhouses sit along sleepy dirt roads in fields abutting the woods. Far beneath the vivid green forest, deep in the bedrock, workers are digging the labyrinthine passages and chambers that they hope to someday pack with all of Finland’s spent nuclear fuel.
Posiva, the Finnish company building an underground repository here, says it knows how to imprison nuclear waste for 100 000 years. These multimillennial thinkers are confident that copper canisters of Scandinavian design, tucked into that bedrock, will isolate the waste in an underground cavern impervious to whatever the future brings: sinking permafrost, rising water, earthquakes, copper-eating microbes, or oblivious land developers in the year 25 000. If the Finnish government agrees—a decision is expected by 2012—this site will become the world’s first deep, permanent repository for spent nuclear fuel.
Of course, not everyone shares Posiva’s confidence. ”It’s deep hubris to think you can contain it,” says Charles McCombie, executive director of the Association for Regional and International Underground Storage, based in Switzerland.
There’s more at stake here than the interment of 5500 metric tons of spent Finnish fuel. More than 50 years after the first commercial nuclear power plants went operational in the United Kingdom and the United States, the world’s 270 000 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel remain in limbo. After it gets swapped out of a reactor, utilities put it in specially designed pools, where chilled, circulating water absorbs the initial heat and radioactivity. After about five or six years, the fuel has cooled considerably, enabling utilities with limited pool space to load it into huge, million-dollar steel casks that are left to sit on concrete pads within guarded compounds.
The arrangement is far from ideal. The waste will emit harmful levels of radioactivity for thousands of years to come, and the casks are expected to last for a couple of hundred years, at most. The lack of a more permanent option is one of the biggest problems facing the global nuclear-power industry, which has been stalled for decades. But concerns about climate change have revived the prospects for nuclear power’s future growth, daring the industry to hope for a rebirth.
Years ago, almost every country with more than a few nuclear power plants was considering some sort of permanent repository. But politics has kept most of those plans at the paper stage. In the United States, the possibility of a permanent solution to the waste problem seems more elusive than ever: This past May, after two decades and US $9 billion, the Obama administration quietly ended a plan to build a repository beneath Yucca Mountain in Nevada. With the cancellation of Yucca, just two active repository projects for spent fuel are left: the Finnish one, which is called Onkalo, as well as a less advanced one in Sweden.
Onkalo’s underground tunnels won’t even begin to address the global situation. But they will do the next best thing. This project, estimated to cost 3 billion ($4.5 billion), will either demonstrate that the technical, social, and political challenges of nuclear waste disposal can be met in a democratic society, or it will scare other such countries away from the repository idea for decades to come.
So far, Posiva has carved out nearly 5000 meters of tunnels and shafts, excavated more than 100 000 cubic meters of rock, and collected rock samples from 53 deep boreholes. Over the next three years, it will try to prove to the government that its canisters and deep chambers will contain radioactive waste no matter what happens to Finland. If Posiva succeeds, the repository will open for business in 2020. A hundred years later, the final canister will be buried, and the tunnels will be filled in, covered up, and artfully abandoned to a cover of pine needles and mushrooms. Finland’s first nuclear era will be over.