Final disposal of spent nuclear fuel

Published

The Government has approved the application for the final repository for spent nuclear fuel and the encapsulation plant needed to manage the spent fuel. In the next stage of the process, the land and environment court will issue a permit and stipulate its conditions. The Swedish Radiation Safety Authority will then examine and approve the future work in a step-by-step review.

The Swedish Nuclear Fuel and Waste Management Company (SKB) applied for a permit to construct and operate plants in a cohesive system for the final disposal of spent nuclear fuel and waste. The system for final disposal consists of a plant for interim storage and encapsulation of spent nuclear fuel in Oskarshamn Municipality and a final repository for nuclear waste in the bedrock at Forsmark in Östhammar Municipality.

The Government has assessed that the application meets the requirements set out in the Swedish Environmental Code and the Nuclear Activities Act. SKB has therefore received permission in accordance with the Nuclear Activities Act to own, construct and operate a final repository and an encapsulation plant as outlined in their application. The Government has also decided to approve the application for the same operations in accordance with Chapter 17 of the Environmental Code, which means that the Government deems the future environmental impact of the operations acceptable.

In accordance with the Environmental Code, the Government will now hand the case over to the land and environment court at Nacka District Court for further review of SKB’s application. In accordance with the Nuclear Activities Act, the Government’s decision is conditional on the Swedish Radiation Safety Authority conducting a continued step-by-step review, wherein future research and technology development will be part of the continued process.

The Government received SKB’s application in 2018

In 2011, SKB submitted the application for a permit for the final repository to the land and environment court at Nacka District Court and to the Swedish Radiation Safety Authority, as required under the Environmental Code and the Nuclear Activities Act. Following an extensive review and preparation, the application was handed over to the Government on 23 January 2018. The Swedish Radiation Safety Authority and the land and environment court submitted separate opinions together with the application.

In its opinion, the Swedish Radiation Safety Authority recommended that SKB receive a permit for the final repository subject to the review of certain details in a step-by-step process at the outset of the commissioning of the final repository. The land and environment court recommended in its opinion that the Government permit the operations subject to further clarification of certain questions and provided that SKB supplement the application.

Application supplemented in 2019

In June 2018, the Government gave SKB the possibility to supplement its applications. The supplementary materials submitted by SKB in 2019 included documentation outlining how safe the canister for spent fuel is, and particularly the strength of the copper canister. Following the Government’s referral of SKB’s supplementary documentation, SKB was given the opportunity to comment on the consultation responses. The applications and supplementary documentation have also been published so as to ensure public access to comprehensive information on the company’s application and to provide the opportunity to submit views.

A key part of the process was to involve all concerned stakeholders to allow them to share their views on the application. Government agencies, researchers, environmental organisations, the concerned municipalities and the general public have all had the opportunity to submit their views on the applications at multiple stages. The Government has received a large number of statements on the matter totalling tens of thousands of pages.

A safe method for final disposal

Research on disposal methods has been going on since the 1970s. The system for final disposal consists of a plant for interim storage and encapsulation of spent nuclear fuel in Oskarshamn Municipality and a final repository for nuclear waste in the bedrock at Forsmark in Östhammar Municipality. The method used, KBS-3, relies on a combination of three barriers – the copper canisters, the Bentonite clay around them and the bedrock itself – to protect people and the environment from harmful radiation.

The Government supports the assessment by the Swedish Radiation Safety Authority that this is the best possible technology for final disposal and that the triple barrier method is safe and meets the requirements of the legislation, even over a very long time perspective.

Sweden and Finland first – using unique Swedish technology

The final repository in Forsmark comprises 500 tunnels at a depth of 500 metres in the bedrock. The final repository will accommodate 12 000 tonnes of spent nuclear fuel encapsulated in 6 000 copper canisters. Developed in Sweden, the KBS-3 method is a world-leading nuclear waste management technology. This same technology will be used in Finland. At the time this article was published, no other countries have made as much progress managing their nuclear waste.

Decision subject to conditions and requirements on safety precautions

The Government has decided to grant SKB a permit in accordance with the Nuclear Activities Act. The Government has also assessed that the operations for which SKB applied conform to the requirements set out under the Environmental Code in accordance with the precautionary principle and the requirement concerning the best possible technology. The Government has also assessed that the location is suitable for final disposal and that its environmental impact is acceptable, provided that rigorous safety precautions are implemented to ensure the minimum possible impact on the vicinity. The Government has therefore approved the operations in accordance with the Environmental Code.

In accordance with the Nuclear Activities Act, the Government has stipulated general conditions in the permit requiring that the plant be constructed, owned and operated in line with the application. The Government has also made its decision conditional on the use of the KBS-3 method and a step-by-step review of the construction.

In the decision on permissibility in accordance with the Environmental Code, the Government stipulated that SKB hold annual meetings with Oskarshamn and Östhammar Municipalities, government agencies and environmental organisations to provide information and the continued opportunity for involvement.

Long period of time and lengthy process before final repository is operational

This is the continuation of a long project. The Government’s decision enables the process of commissioning a final repository for spent nuclear fuel to continue. In accordance with the Environmental Code, the case is now being handed over to the land and environment court at Nacka District Court to conclude the permit process and issue a permit subject to detailed conditions for the operations.

When the permit enters into force, the Swedish Radiation Safety Authority will then review each stage of the construction of the final repository in a step-by-step review. It is estimated that the construction and operation of the final repository will take about 70 years until the nuclear waste has been stored.

The technological issues and details requiring further investigation do not stand in the way of commencing with final disposal process, but additional research and development are still needed. An example of this is how knowledge and information will be passed on to future generations.

The actual method for final disposal will also need further development. The development of the method will be presented in future safety reports in accordance with the conditions requiring step-by-step review and will be subject to approval by the Swedish Radiation Safety Authority.

In 70 years, when the final repository is completed and all canisters with nuclear waste have been stored, the sitting government will examine whether the final repository can be permanently sealed.

Short cuts

KBS-3 method

The method for managing spent nuclear waste is called KBS-3. The method is based on three protective barriers that prevent radiation from the nuclear waste reaching the geosphere. The three barriers are copper canisters, Bentonite clay and the bedrock.

Encapsulation plant, interim storage and final repository

The planned cohesive system for final disposal consists of two parts: a plant for interim storage (Clab) and encapsulation of nuclear waste (Clink) in copper canisters in Oskarshamn Municipality, and a subterranean final repository at Forsmark in Östhammar Municipality.