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How “solved” is the issue of high-level nuclear waste in Finland?

18.10.2006 Kaisa Kosonen

Finland is often claimed to have a solution for the high-level nuclear waste. It has also been highlighted as a country where the nuclear waste programme and the “solution” has a wide support from the public. But what’s the real story behind these claims? How solved is the issue of high-level nuclear waste in Finland?

In 2001 the Finnish parliament approved the Council of State’s decision in principlal (DiP) of building a high-level waste disposal site to the island of Olkiluoto, in the municipality of Eurajoki. Due to this decision, an underground characterisation facility “Onkalo” is now under construction in Eurajoki, due to be finished in 2010. The idea is to make this eventually a part of the final disposal facility, which is planned to be constructed in 2010 – 2020.

However, unlike often claimed, the DiP approved by the parliament in 2001
– does not mean that the programme and method for the final waste disposal in Finland, based on the Swedish KBS-3 method would have been proved safe
– does not permit Posiva to build the final disposal facility
– does not permit Posiva to start disposing waste
– does not even guarantee that the waste will eventually be stored in Eurajoki

In other words, Finland does not have a solution for the high-level nuclear waste, but a political agreement on how to proceed with the waste management plan. The decision of 2001 was just another step in a long road – a political process that started already in 1983. It gives Posiva the permission to continue with its site-specific research in Eurajoki. Whether the plan, the method and the site are considered safe enough or not are to be analysed at a later phase.

How safe is the KBS-method?

The nuclear lobby likes to claim that the Swedish KBS method, forming the basis for the Finnish waste programme is completely safe. Interestingly enough it was considered as “absolutely safe” already in 1983.

In reality there’s still a lot of research to be done and criticism has been raised concerning Posiva’s plans and the method itself.

Posiva’s Research Director, Mr. Juhani Vira naturally believes in the method. However, in Posiva’s own publication Posiva tutkii (1/2002) he too reminded that the decision in principle does not as such solve the question of whether we have a solution to nuclear waste. He also noted that there’s a lot of research and planning ahead and there are still open questions related to the safety of the method. In addition he admitted that some questions related to the scheme may remain unanswered forever.

International review group criticices Finnish waste plans for too much haste

International review group commissioned by STUK and consisting of nuclear consults and researchers, has repeatedly criticised Posiva for too much haste in their research and overlooking the seriousness of the problems.

In 2001, the review group stated that the company needs to do more research from the surface and model the bedrock before going forward with construction of a rock characterisation facility inside the bedrock. This is because the construction of the facility changes the original state of the bedrock, making it practically impossible to predict how bedrock would change in the future, with the nuclear waste buried in it.

STUK possessed the statements of the reviewers already in spring 2001, when they together with Posiva claimed to the Finnish parliamentarians that no further studies could be made from the surface. The statement of the review group was never released to the parliamentarians. Only 7 months after the decision in the parliament STUK suddenly released the statements of the review group, and claimed that more research should be made and the programme should be postponed by two years, while more surface research was done.

The review group has not been satisfied with the research ever since. In 2004 it stated that safety analysis is constrained by the tight schedule of Posiva, and criticised the company plans that safety assessment report will be published before the finalization of the research in the bedrock, in order to keep the 2012 deadline for construction permit. The review group states:

“Even without the unforeseen delays, there would be a very short period in which to characterize the rock, select the optimum repository layout or the conduct scientific investigations at disposal depth. Decisions on key safety issues will have to be made before relevant experience has been gained either in Finland or in other countries.”

This is similar to the critique that Greenpeace presented before the decision-in-principle in the parliament, when we asked why decision in the parliament would have to be made before the safety research. The company and STUK seem to be in such a hurry that they push political decisions before the safety research. The review group continues:

“Another major effect of the stringent time table is that the intensive excavation programme threatens to compromise the quality of hydrogeological and geochemical data that can be obtained. There is a danger, that the programme has become overwhelmingly construction driven…In the reviewers’ opinion, unless additional time is allowed, much of the information required for the safety case may not be available. A realistic schedule for tasks that are important for the safety case, with adequate resource allocation, needs to be devised.”