Geological Repositories for Radioactive Waste - A long and winding road

By Dr Derek Taylor; Honorary Professor with the GeoEnergy Research Centre and Former Energy Advisor to the European Commission

The OECD Nuclear Energy Agency (OECD/NEA) and the French radioactive waste management agency - ANDRA – have just hosted the fifth in a series of international conferences on geological repositories (ICGR 2016) in Paris (6-9 December, 2016). There were over 200 participants from 27 countries.

The main focus of the conference was to review progress and achievements since the last conference (Toronto, 2012), to examine the latest challenges encountered by the various stakeholders and, in particular, the societal issues surrounding the development of geological repositories for radioactive wastes. The title of the conference was “Continued Engagement and Safe Implementation”.

It is a well-known fact that progress on geological repositories can never be described as rapid. The period from first inception to operation is measured in decades – if everything goes smoothly! So the fact that the Finnish waste management company, Posiva, had been given a licence to construct the repository at Onkalo was, in many ways, the highlight of the national reports. Work had already started in Finland on the search for a site in the early 1980s and the island of Olkiluoto had been selected as a suitable location in 1999. Following a vote in the Finnish Parliament which strongly supported the choice of site, the Government gave its formal approval in 2001. An operating licence will be requested in 2020 and the first disposal will take place after that is granted – around 40 years after the search for a site had started.

Aerial photo of Onkalo from 2014 (Copyright: Posiva Oy)

Other projects have also progressed, but not as far as the Finnish one. There has been good progress in Sweden where the regulator (SSM) has given a positive assessment of the chosen site in Forsmark and it is now waiting for a decision of the Environment Court. If granted, construction would start in the early 2020s. There has also been continuing developments in the French Geological Disposal programme . A full session of the conference was dedicated to the Cigéo deep geological disposal project which is located in North-Eastern France on the border between the Meuse and Haut-Marne departments. A construction licence will be applied for in 2018. (In view of the extensive information provided about Cigéo, a separate blog will be produced covering various aspects of its development to date). No other countries have so far definitively succeeded in siting their high-level waste/spent nuclear fuel disposal facilities.

Entrance to Onkalo (Copyright: Posiva Oy)

A key to siting geological repositories is acceptance of a project by the many stakeholders, in particular national regulatory bodies and the local populations close to the prospective sites. For this reason, two whole sessions of the conference covered various aspects of stakeholder dialogues. Presentations and other contributions to the discussions were made by representatives of national regulatory bodies, waste management agencies, nuclear electric utilities, members of parliament and local politicians. The key to success, it was agreed, was good communications between all stakeholders – in particular defining what “safety” meant to each group of stakeholders. Often local residents will be much more concerned about possible problems around the transport to and from the site than about long-term issues, while the regulator could be more focussed on the long-term integrity of the site. Therefore there was a clear need for true dialogue between the different parties rather than simply providing extensive quantities of information. Planning well ahead and a great deal of patience were also critical factors for progress on the long and winding road from inception to operation.

Illustration of the Onkalo Repository (Copyright: Posiva Oy)

The final session was devoted to the subject of international co-operation with significant focus of the efforts brought about in response to the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA’s) Joint Convention on spent fuel and radioactive waste and the European Union’s Directive on radioactive waste management (2011/70/Euratom). There is still a very dynamic and - all those present agreed - very necessary research activity in the field of waste management both at national and international level. Exchange of information on national programmes is facilitated through the OECD/NEA and the IAEA and also through EDRAM – a grouping of several major waste management agencies. The agencies also support research, though the largest international research programmes are mainly supported by the European Commission through its various Framework Programmes and Technology Platforms.

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