Sweden takes a chance on Forsmark

Nuclear waste repository site will be near nuclear plant

By Linda Pentz Gunter

“Who is going to take care of it if we’re not going to do it?” asks a Swedish official during the 2013 Swiss documentary, Journey to the Safest Place on Earth.

The councilman was attempting to justify and rationalize his municipality’s willingness to host a deep geologic repository (DGR) for Sweden’s high-level radioactive reactor waste. It was all about a sense of collective responsibility, he said.

Last week, the Swedish government approved a nuclear DGR for the Forsmark community in the municipality of Östhammar, one of two previously identified volunteer communities. 

Forsmark is already home to one of Sweden’s three nuclear power plants, as well as a low-level radioactive waste repository. Sweden has accumulated more than 8,000 tons of highly radioactive waste since its six reactors first began operating in the 1970s.

Echoing the earlier sentiment, Sweden’s environment minister, Annika Strandhall, said in a press conference announcing the selection of the repository site: “Our generation must take responsibility for nuclear waste.” But there may be more to the story.

The Forsmark announcement comes on the heels of considerable political pressure to maintain or even expand Sweden’s nuclear power program. A recent story by BloombergSweden Approves Nuclear Waste Site to Keep Its Reactors Running — gives away right in the headline the likely agenda behind the repository announcement.

Currently, Swedish operators are “only allowed to build a new unit to directly replace an old one”. Meanwhile, operators had warned that they were running out of nuclear waste storage space, forcing closures.

But if a “solution” to the waste problem should suddenly manifest, such as a DGR, the argument for nuclear maintenance and expansion is considerably, if wrongly, strengthened.

Sweden’s decision is based on the same premise, in principle, that Hagen’s film takes; that a DGR is the preferable option for storing the world’s most dangerous and long-lived nuclear waste. But the journey Hagen takes only serves to highlight the near-impossibility, almost everywhere, of finding a technically, ethically and politically acceptable site.

In the same way, the 2010 film, Into Eternity, which featured only those directly involved in the creation and construction of Finland’s Onkalo DGR, brings home all too clearly the many challenges, imperfections and potential catastrophes that could ensue as a result of burying lethal radioactive waste for millennia. The Onkalo DGR is now close to completion; the world’s first.

The Forsmark site is characterized as capable of “safely” isolating the radioactive waste it will store in copper canisters for 100,000 years. But this safety assertion is by no means a guarantee and the timescale not nearly long enough for certain kinds of radioactive wastes. 

The Forsmark site will rely on “copper canisters and bury them 500 meters (1,640 feet) underground in bentonite, an absorbent clay with sealant properties,” according to reports.

Some argue repositories should safeguard their radioactive cargo for a million years. Others say 10,000 years is long enough. All of these figures, writes Christine Ro in a November 2019 Forbes article —The Staggering Timescales Of Nuclear Waste Disposal — are to some extent, ”little better than educated guesses.” 

Ro also notes that “One of the International Atomic Energy Agency’s conditions for such a geological site is low groundwater content, which has been stable for at least tens of thousands of years, and geological stability, over millions of years.”

She also observes that, “Given the history of environmental justice globally, it’s likely that any future locations approved for nuclear waste dumps will be found in poor areas.”

This latter has thus far proven to be true in areas targeted for radioactive waste disposal, including on Aboriginal land in Australia and Western Shoshone Native American land in Nevada, USA. 

The latter site, at Yucca Mountain, was defeated on political grounds, even though it was also technically and scientifically unsound, located in an actively volcanic area and with clear indications that water would penetrate the site.

The Forsmark site will still need to secure permitting through the Swedish environmental court, after which, according to SKB, the company that developed the technology and will build the repository, “The Swedish Radiation Safety Authority will also decide on permit conditions under the Nuclear Activities Act. Only when all licences are in place can construction start, after which time, it will take about 10 years to build the spent fuel repository.”

Forsmark sits in an area dotted with lakes and is less than 10km from the Swedish coast. It remains to be seen, therefore, whether Sweden’s nuclear waste is headed for oblivion or a watery grave.

Linda Pentz Gunter is the international specialist at Beyond Nuclear and writes for and curates Beyond Nuclear International.

Headline schematic of the Forsmark deep geologic nuclear waste repository plan courtesy of SKB.

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