Radioactive Nimby: No One Wants Nuclear Waste

Friday, November 16, 2007

SWEEPING his hand across the surface of a warm cask heated by some of the most radioactive material on earth, Walter Heep says he is confident that the contents can be kept safely and securely aboveground for the next few decades.

Asked what might happen beyond that time frame — particularly if Swiss voters continue to reject proposals to bury nuclear waste permanently at a deep underground site — Mr. Heep is blunt about the problems that a lack of such a site will present for the future of the nuclear industry in Switzerland.

“We are not planning on a Plan B,” said Mr. Heep, chief executive of Zwilag, a company that safeguards waste from the country’s five reactors in storage buildings here in Würenlingen, near the border with Germany. “We need a final repository in Switzerland.”

Because the production of nuclear energy generates virtually no carbon dioxide, around the world the industry is trying to ride a wave of enthusiasm for green sources of power as demand for energy is surging. But a huge obstacle remains: more than a half century after the opening of the first commercial reactor, there is still no permanent disposal site anywhere for highly radioactive waste of the kind overseen by Mr. Heep.

The industry and many governments are seeking to entomb the waste — the long-delayed Yucca Mountain project in Nevada is the most prominent example — but aversion to nuclear facilities remains strong, making it hard to find suitable sites and damping the industry’s hopes for a nuclear renaissance.

“The failure to properly address waste disposal in the first decades of nuclear energy development has left a legacy of doubt in the minds of the public and politicians over its overall safety,” Tomihiro Taniguchi, the deputy director general for nuclear safety and security at the International Atomic Energy Agency, said at a conference in Bern, Switzerland, in October. “If this doubt is not ameliorated soon, it could well lead to all the ambitious plans to expand the use of nuclear power on a global scale being significantly delayed.”

Around the world, waste and spent fuel are stored on an interim basis in pools of water or in casks, many near ground level. That leads to concerns about the vulnerability of the materials to disasters like terrorist attacks, and it raises persistent questions about whether the materials can be effectively monitored for periods that exceed recorded human history many times over.

Firing neutrons at waste in a process called transmutation can speed up radioactive decay, reducing the amount of time the waste remains dangerous. Reprocessing spent fuel reduces its volume and toxicity. But neither procedure eliminates waste. So international officials like Mr. Taniguchi say permanent disposal in a combination of clay and rock, or in salt domes, is the best long-term option for isolating waste like spent fuel, which contains materials that can take up to a million years to degrade to the extent that the toxicity is negligible.

Posiva, a waste disposal company owned by Finnish nuclear operators, is digging a tunnel at Olkiluoto, an island in the west of Finland, in anticipation of final approval for storing waste a quarter of a mile underground. Burial could begin in 2020. That could make the site the first of its kind, demonstrating to opponents of nuclear power that long-term disposal is feasible and helping the Finnish nuclear industry save money on storage in future decades.

But the Finnish case is exceptional. Many residents in the Olkiluoto area accept nuclear facilities because there are already nuclear power plants on the island that provide employment and hefty tax revenue. The local geology also turned out to be favorable.

In other parts of the world, similar efforts face seemingly implacable opposition. For decades, United States authorities have sought to put high-level waste inside Yucca Mountain, in Nevada. President Bush gave the green light in 2002, but Nevada’s governor vetoed the plan. Although Congress overrode that veto and government officials say they could open a site there by 2017 if all goes according to schedule, few people consider that timetable realistic.

The prospect of sustained opposition from Nevada has left officials in the federal government hinting at the need to restrict transparency in the future.

Winning local support is “a noble objective,” said Edward F. Sproat, the director of the federal Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management.

But “if you set your program up so that local acceptance is an absolute necessity to site your repository, I’m not going to say you will fail, but you should be prepared to fail,” he said.

In Japan, which generates a third of its electricity at nuclear plants and where authorities are aiming to raise that proportion, the central government is offering up to $17 million each year in subsidies to municipalities that volunteer to be considered as disposal sites.

In January, Toyo, a rural town in southern Japan, was the first to apply for the subsidies. But some town assembly members and residents, as well as neighboring local governments, protested. The Toyo mayor, Yasuoki Tashima, who backed the project, called an early election to seek endorsement for his plan, but he lost overwhelmingly. His successor promptly withdrew the application, saying that the town had narrowly avoided a “reckless act.”

Kenji Ogiwara, a vice minister of economy, trade and industry, said no other municipalities had applied since the election in Toyo. Mr. Ogiwara, who spoke in Bern, also seemed to say that the Japanese government should get tougher by nominating sites rather than waiting for volunteers.

In France last year, to increase public acceptance after widespread protests in the 1980s against burial, legislators made such plans contingent on the ability of future generations to exhume waste. The law in France — which relies on nuclear plants for more than 80 percent of its electricity and has one of the largest accumulations of waste in Europe — was written to allow for other means of disposal if new technology comes along.

Some experts warn that those requirements make sites more costly to maintain and could undermine the viability of underground storage.

“The idea is that at some point you’ll seal the shaft and walk away because you can’t guarantee monitoring for hundreds, let alone thousands, of years,” said Simon Webster, the head of a unit responsible for nuclear fission at the European Commission. “Leaving a channel of escape into the biosphere could be self-defeating.”

At Zwilag, the interim storage site overseen by Mr. Heep and owned by four Swiss nuclear operators, the temperature of high-level waste inside the casks is about 575 degrees Fahrenheit. But because they are insulated, the casks deliver a steady warmth similar to a household radiator.

Openings in the walls of the storage building naturally move fresh air around the casks and through the roof, even during warm weather, removing the heat without spreading radioactivity, Mr. Heep said.

There is plenty of room for casks at Zwilag, which is not expected to fill up until much later this century. But the industry may need all the space it can get if opponents continue to find ways to stop burials.

Voters in Nidwalden, a Swiss canton, rebuffed the government in 1995 and 2002 on plans to bury waste there.

After those setbacks, Switzerland passed legislation that took effect in 2005, depriving cantons of the right to veto plans to bury waste, but allowing for a national vote on the final selection of a site.

“We think that’s not fair,” said Jean-Jacques Fasnacht, a doctor who lives in Zürcher Weinland, one of many areas that Swiss authorities are studying as a future waste site. “We worry that people living in Geneva won’t be concerned about what happens in the north of Switzerland.”

Dr. Fasnacht, a co-president of a Swiss antinuclear group, KLAR Schweiz, is joining forces with similar groups in France, Germany and Austria to raise money for studies with the intent of persuading Swiss voters that underground burial will still leave waste vulnerable to attacks by terrorists and to radiation leaks from geological changes.

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