Site Selection for Spent Fuel Storage and Disposal of High-Level Waste: Experience of European Countries
This workshop looks at methods for the long-term management of radioactive waste from the nuclear fuel cycle. In principle there are various potential approaches to long-term waste management; different options have been looked at over the past years, for example, BNWL 1974. Figure 1 illustrates the various options looked at, including the so-called exotic options such as disposal into space, ice sheets, or subduction zones. In practice, however, there are only two realistic options today. One of these is long-term storage on or under the surface. The other is deep disposal in a geologic medium. In this talk I will look briefly at
long-term storage, addressing the concept and its status today in Europe and the world. Most of the presentation, however, is devoted to the more challenging issue of geological disposal. I will look at the concept of geological disposal in general and then at specific siting issues. I will focus on the contentious issues that have made siting a problem throughout the world, and I will give some examples in a European context—both positive and negative examples. Last of all, the paper looks at the way ahead to siting in Europe in a national context and in an international framework.
LONG-TERM STORAGE: CONCEPT AND STATUS
Long-term storage is technically straightforward. Different methods have been developed and have been tried and tested at various locations for many years and even for decades. The original method used was pool storage, that is, storage under water, normally at reactor facilities. This is still in operation today at many places around the world. Later the technique of dry storage was introduced. Dry storage can take place either in individual storage containers, as is done in various places in Europe, including the Gorleben and Ahaus facilities in Germany and the Zwilag Central Storage Facility in Switzerland. Dry storage can also take place in vaults. This is done at the reprocessing plants in Europe (in France and the United Kingdom) and also in some individual countries, such as at the Borssele storage facility in the Netherlands. Spent fuel storage is a proven methodology; it is safe as long as effort continues to be expended for the necessary maintenance and control. This is the essential difference between storage and the disposal concepts to which we will come later.
Spent fuel or high-level waste storage is needed in all national programs. It is needed because geological repositories will not be implemented in any countries in the very near future and in some cases will be implemented only in the far future. Spent fuel storage needs are in some cases urgent. When early nuclear power plants were built, they were constructed with spent fuel storage pools dimensioned under the assumption that the fuel could be moved off site, either to reprocessing facilities or to centralized storage facilities or to disposal facilities. The problems in implementing these further steps in the back-end chain have led to the spent fuel storage capacity being exhausted or nearly exhausted at various reactor plants. Implementing new centralized storage facilities has proven to be difficult because of the societal problems in establishing new nuclear sites, problems to which we will return later.
There have been, however, some successes in this area. Sweden and Finland have both implemented pool storage facilities below the surface in granitic rocks, close to operating power plants. In Belgium, the Netherlands, and Switzerland it has been possible to implement new surface storage facilities, in each case based on the dry storage technique. In other countries it has proven more difficult, or as yet impossible, to site new centralized storage facilities. This problem has been
alleviated in many cases by re-racking of existing fuel storage pools in order to increase the quantities of spent nuclear fuel that can be stored in these. In Europe, Germany currently represents a special case with respect to spent fuel storage policy. Germany has available spent fuel storage facilities both at Gorleben and at Ahaus. However, massive demonstrations against transport (only to the Gorleben facility) have led the antinuclear government to seek reasons for stopping the transports. Asserting that transport is too risky, the government introduced a policy of expanding storage facilities at existing reactor sites. This is a clear example of technical reasons being given to justify political decisions. There are no safety reasons or technical reasons that prevent the safe transport and storage of spent nuclear fuel.
GEOLOGIC DISPOSAL: CONCEPT AND STATUS
Before moving into the details of this section it is worth drawing your attention to a valuable reference document produced recently by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in the United States. The document, “Geological Challenges in Radioactive Waste Isolation; Third Worldwide Review,” (Witherspoon and Bodvarsson 2001) contains a very instructive summary of the status of geological disposal programs in a large number of countries around the world. Geological disposal is widely recognized as the only feasible long-term solution that does not involve continuing care and maintenance by future generations. Accordingly, geologic disposal is part of the government policy or even of the legal framework in many countries. The countries closest to implementation of deep geologic repositories are the United States, where a license application is being prepared for the Yucca Mountain site, and Finland and Sweden, which are at or very close to the choice of their final disposal site. Other countries working toward geological disposal are numerous and include Switzerland, Japan, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Spain, South Korea, and countries of the former Soviet Union. The progress being made in these countries varies very dramatically, however. In a few countries geological disposal is being questioned once again. These include Canada and the United Kingdom; in both these countries all options, including the so-called exotic options, are once again being studied and put before the public. In France three potential options (continuing storage, transmutation, and geological disposal) are all being examined in parallel, at least until the milestone deadline of 2006.
In the countries that are progressing with geologic disposal, there are extensive scientific and technical programs that have been running for decades. In almost all cases, however, there have been major delays in implementation of the geological disposal plans, when measured against the ambitious timescales set out by the technical community in the early days. The reasons for the delays have been both technical and societal; the consensus is that nowadays the greatest challenges are indeed societal, as stated in a recent report by the U.S. Na-
tional Research Council (NRC 2001). Because of this, geological disposal programs in many countries around the world have currently a very strong focus on stakeholder issues. There is much debate on when, how, and to what extent the public can and should be involved in the decision-making processes. This stakeholder issue is, of course, of greatest impact when we come to the challenge of siting geological disposal facilities, as discussed in the following section.
SITING OF GEOLOGICAL DISPOSAL FACILITIES
The siting of nuclear facilities in general has evolved over the many decades since nuclear technology was first introduced. Originally nuclear facilities were sited in remote areas. This was in part related to the military origins of nuclear technology but in part also related to the understandable wish to keep major industrial facilities far from centers of population. As societal problems with siting grew there was a tendency to try to collocate new facilities with existing facilities. Today it is still noticeable that acceptance of new nuclear facilities tends to be higher in areas where nuclear facilities have already been operating for some time. When looking for new sites, the original approach was to use expert opinion. This has been characterized as “decide, announce, defend” (DAD), an approach that has fallen increasingly into disrepute. The next phase, documented in many advisory documents of the IAEA, advocated progressively narrowing in from a nationwide search, using predominantly technical criteria to identify the “best” existing site or sites. The approach was intended to be traceable and to be defensible, that is, the finally chosen site should be easy to defend against any objections, including those of the local population. This technocratic approach was doomed to failure, primarily because the criteria for selection tend to be not purely objective but rather to have a high subjective component, which implies that controversy can never be ruled out. The tendency then has been to move to a more pragmatic approach, based on multiattribute analysis. In this approach an attempt is made to quantify as far as possible all significant characteristics of the site and of the siting approach, and then to allow different stakeholders to apply their personal weighted views on the importance of these characteristics. A final siting approach that has become increasingly important in recent years is volunteering by a potential host community. This has been tried in various countries, often with very sobering results, but occasionally has led to real success. We will return to this issue later.
Guidelines and Regulations in Siting
There are international guidelines on approaches to siting and also on the characteristics that should be sought in specific sites. The IAEA has identified four stages in the siting process.
a conceptual and planning stage
an area survey stage
a site characterization stage
a site confirmation stage
At each of these stages a set of siting guidelines must be kept in mind. These guidelines include criteria that are useful for judging the acceptability of a site in a societal and, importantly, in a safety sense. Typically the criteria fall into three categories: technical, environmental, and socioeconomic aspects. Box 1 gives examples of the technical and societal guidelines that have been used to date. As indicated above, siting is not a simple case of measuring all the characteristics
given and choosing the best site. This is neither feasible nor necessary. In practice there are a range of issues in siting that have been in the past very contentious and that are today still the subject of intensive debate. The next section looks at the more important of these contentious siting issues.
KEY CONTENTIOUS ISSUES IN SITING
Technical Selection or Volunteering?
Technical siting approaches, involving a progressive narrowing in from a large number to a smaller number of sites using quantifiable criteria, were developed 20 to 30 years ago. As indicated above, however, volunteering of sites can also be a responsible method for siting. Any community that considers that it would be prepared to host a geological waste repository should feel able to put forward this suggestion. The community should also be confident that the site would ultimately be chosen only if it could be shown to fulfill the necessary safety criteria. It is the responsibility of the repository implementer to ensure that all sites considered must fulfill the same strict criteria, irrespective of how they entered into the selection process. If this is assured, it is possible to run a technical screening process for sites and a volunteering process in parallel. In all siting approaches a high-quality scientific and societal process, which must also be transparent, is required if the necessary degree of confidence in the final choice is to be shared by all the stakeholders in the process.
Number of Sites at Each Stage
The number of sites to be considered at each stage in the siting process is a key issue, not least because of the resources that are required to evaluate each potential site. Multiple sites increase the chances of having at least one success. Multiple sites allow choices, that is, they give flexibility to the program and prevent unexpected results at any site necessarily leading to a major realignment of effort. Exploration of sites, especially if this involves investigation of the deep geology, is an expensive undertaking, and much judgment is needed in deciding the number of sites that should be included at each stage throughout the siting process.
Approaches have differed in countries around Europe. Concepts vary for the most expensive stage involving underground exploration using a deep shaft. In countries like Finland, Switzerland, Belgium, and Spain the objective has always been to sink a shaft at only one site, unless the results at the first site chosen prove that further site searching is necessary. In Sweden and France the original plans were to have a deep shaft for investigations in at least two potential sites. Sweden has since moved away from this concept, partly because there has al-
ready been extensive exploration at two underground laboratory sites. In France the policy still involves underground exploration at two sites, one in clay and one in crystalline. A crystalline site has not yet been identified, whereas work at the clay site at Bure in northern France is significantly advanced. In Germany, again an exception in the European framework, two sites have already been investigated at depth. The Gorleben salt dome in Lower Saxony has been the subject of a major site exploration program that has cost more than 2 billion Deutsche marks. The Konrad iron mine has been extensively investigated for potential disposal of non-heat-producing wastes. Mainly for societal reasons, the government in Germany charged an advisory group (AkEnd) with the development of a new siting approach, intended to reintroduce a larger number of alternative sites (AkEnd 2002). Whether the complex procedures proposed by the AkEnd group (now disbanded) will ever be put into practice is still an open question.
Predefinition of Explicit “No-Go” Criteria
“No-go” or exclusion criteria are commonly set at the initial screening phase of a program. Typically, a technical no-go criterion might be the distance from a known major geological feature. A typical societal exclusion criterion might be the avoidance of national parks. As the site investigation process proceeds there is sometimes a demand, in particular from the public or from regulators, for further quantitative exclusion criteria. The wish is often for specific criteria based on single parameters, such as the permeability of the rock or the degree of fracturing. Such criteria should not be applied in isolation, however. The safety of a site never depends on a single parameter, but on the total repository system. The repository implementer should resist calls for exclusion criteria based on some single simple parameter and should try to illustrate transparently to the public how the overall safety case for a geological repository is made.
Public participation is an important feature of geological disposal today. Earlier, public information was thought by many to be sufficient, but today the public in many countries wants also to be part of the decision-making process. The degree of public participation in site selection varies greatly from country to country. Sometimes, especially in the past, it has been a closed process done without any public input. Today there is increasingly an effort being made to inform the public and to seek input from the public on the siting process. A particular point that has arisen in many countries concerns the compensation of a siting community. Originally there was some reticence in many countries to offer compensation, the feeling being that this would be looked on as a form of
bribery to compensate for a community accepting a dangerous facility. Increasingly it is recognized that this is not the case. Any community that accepts a facility that will serve the common good of a larger public is entitled to be compensated for providing this wider service. In various countries direct compensation of the host community is now foreseen. In some countries compensation begins during the site selection stage, that is, all potential siting areas will receive some form of compensation (Richardson 1998).
A further critical issue in dealing with the public in the context of siting of geological repositories is that subjective opinions and objective facts must both be factored into the equation. As mentioned earlier, a purely technocratic or objective approach is a myth that has not been able to be realized in any country. In all programs the importance of listening to the subjective opinions and the anxieties of the involved stakeholders has been increasingly recognized.
The last point to be made with respect to public participation is that this is a duty not only of the repository implementer but also of the regulator. In most countries the regulator tries to and is perceived as working on behalf of the public. It is, therefore, important that the regulator also have an explicit program for interaction with all stakeholders, including the public.
Responsibility for Selection of a Preferred Site
The responsibility for site selection usually lies with the repository implementer. The roles of the regulatory authorities are in specifying the selection process and in judging the acceptability of the proposed site. This is the institutional framework most commonly applied. In some cases, however, the government itself, by policy or through its regulatory authorities, has become directly involved in a choice of site. This confuses the roles of implementer and regulator to a large extent and has not proven to be the most productive approach. On the other hand it is also not an optimal approach to exclude the future regulator of the repository site from all early steps leading to the choice of that site. For example, in the United Kingdom the regulators (the Environmental Agency and the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate) were not involved in the early stages leading to the selection of the Sellafield site as a potential deep geological repository. This was counterproductive for the hearings that finally took place, and contributed to the loss of that potential site. It is prudent for the implementer to involve official bodies in the selection process even if it is not legally required. It is to be recommended generally that contacts be established and maintained between implementer and regulator throughout the process of implementing a geological repository, although this must, of course, be done without compromising the independence of the regulator.
“Best” Site or “Sufficiently Safe” Site?
It has already been noted that identifying a “safest” site is neither feasible nor necessary. The tools of safety assessment that are used to judge the safety of the site do not normally have high enough resolution to distinguish between suitable sites. The tools are also not very precise, which implies that sites will be designated as suitable only if large safety margins can be shown to exist. Although a “safest” site is not feasible, a “best” site can be chosen. This is done, using a multiparameter analysis, by choosing a site that best accords to the requirements and wishes of a wide range of stakeholders. Of course the weighting of the selection criteria will be subjective and therefore open to debate subsequently, but there is no method that is more likely to lead to sites that can achieve the necessary degree of acceptance from all participating stakeholders. In summary the brief consensus on this issue is that
a site must be sufficiently safe to satisfy all safety criteria in a demonstrable manner
the optimization of site selection must, however, consider criteria other than those directly related to safety
in this way it is possible to justify the chosen site as being the best technical and societal option from a limited number of chosen potential sites
Figure 2 illustrates the stepwise answering of questions that should lead to decisions on the acceptability of a site. The process starts with deciding whether
the potential site is safe enough, that is, does it meet or is it likely to meet the safety criteria specified by the regulator? The second question asks whether there are large margins of safety. As mentioned above, the tools of safety assessment are blunt; large margins of safety give more confidence that subsequent increases in knowledge will not lead to the site’s dropping out. The third question that one can ask is whether there is an obviously better alternative. Although the given site might meet all the requirements, it will be difficult to convince a large range of stakeholders that this should be the chosen site if there is an easily identifiable better alternative. The fourth question is whether it is feasible to engineer a repository at this site. It may seem late to be asking this question, but unless the safety criteria look as if they can be fulfilled, there is no sense in asking the question. In practice, engineers today are capable of implementing engineered underground facilities in even very difficult rock formations, so that only very extreme conditions will lead to failure to surmount this hurdle.
The fifth question that must be asked concerns acceptance. Even if the safety aspects are satisfied and even if the engineering looks feasible, we still must achieve a sufficient degree of acceptance. Another point of view is that one might first of all clarify the acceptance issue, assuming that local community support will eventually be necessary. This purely voluntary approach to siting is currently being tried by the Japanese waste management agency, NUMO. The top step, the last question, is how much will it cost. Putting this question last does not imply that costs have a low priority. It implies that unless all the other steps have been passed, it is not really relevant even to discuss the cost issue.
Stepwise Siting and the Regulatory Process
The stepwise procedure is recommended not just in the siting process but also throughout the entire repository implementation process. This has been increasingly recognized in recent years, and the U.S. National Research Council recently produced a comprehensive publication on the subject (NRC 2003). One Step at a Time makes clear that there are both technical and societal reasons for proceeding with development in a stepwise or staged process. This staged concept has several key characteristics.
A reference-staged process is defined at the outset, but it is not assumed that adaptations will occur only if forced by circumstances.
The stages are planned with the objective of gaining further knowledge that might lead to amendments subsequently.
At the decision points between stages a broad and open participation in the decision process is designed to take place.
To the maximum extent possible the steps are designed to be reversible, in case the chosen direction turns out to be false.
These features are not new, of course, but together they enhance the prospects of progress in controversial first-of-a-kind projects, such as the implementation of a deep geological repository.
EUROPEAN SITING DEVELOPMENTS
The most advanced European nation in siting is Finland. In this country the government, the parliament, and the local population have agreed to the choice of a preferred site for a spent fuel repository, at Olkiluoto on the Baltic coast. In neighboring Sweden the disposal program is almost as far advanced. In Sweden two local communities have accepted that site investigations for a spent fuel repository can take place in their community. It is interesting to note that both sites are adjacent to existing nuclear facilities. France has selected one of the two potential sites to be investigated for a deep geological repository. This is in clay; an alternative site in granite has not yet been identified. In Switzerland a geological repository site for low- and intermediate-level waste was recently refused, not for technical reasons but for political reasons. For a deep disposal site for high-level waste and spent fuel, the preferred region in northern Switzerland has recently been identified. This is a region between Zurich and the German border, where the preferred host rock is an overconsolidated clay, opalinus clay. The German situation has already been described. Despite having two sites where exploration at depth has already taken place, consideration is being given to restarting the siting process. In the Czech Republic the siting process was broken off following public opposition some years ago, but this is also to be restarted in the near future. In countries such as Belgium, Spain, Holland, the United Kingdom, and several Central and Eastern European countries there are no active siting programs for deep geological repositories.
A recent development, which has caused great interest in Europe, is the issue by the European Commission (EC) of a draft directive on waste management that includes specific points concerning the implementation of repositories. With respect to repositories for spent fuel and high-level waste it was proposed that authorization for development of sites should occur no later than 2008 and that the authorization for operation of these facilities should occur no later than 2013. These dates were hopelessly optimistic and can be fulfilled by no European program. Even the most advanced program in Finland will not be able to meet these deadlines. A further aspect of the directive is of great interest to many of the smaller countries in Europe. In the memorandum accompanying the directive it is stated that “a regional approach involving two or more countries could also offer advantages, especially to countries that have no or limited nuclear programs, insofar as it would provide a safe and less costly solution for all
parties.” After intensive debate in the EU, the dates were removed and the directive watered down to a non-binding resolution, which does however still support the concept of shared repositories.
Following up this suggestion from Brussels, the Arius Organisation in Switzerland, together with the Decom Company in Slovakia, submitted a proposal to Framework Program 6 of the European Union. This proposal called SAPIERR (Support Action: Pilot Initiative for European Regional Repositories) has the support of a wide range of Western and Central European countries. The European Commission decided to support the project, and funding is being provided by the EC and the Swiss government.
THE WAY AHEAD
How will programs for development of geological repositories in Europe progress over the next years? It seems clear that national repositories will be implemented in the foreseeable future. The progress that has been made in the Scandinavian countries has already been pointed out, and France after its 2006 deadline may well also have a specific schedule for implementation. These national programs may show the way ahead for programs to be carried out in a wider context. The regional repository concept must be followed in Europe, given the large number of small countries that will need access to deep geological disposal. In fact, regional repositories will almost certainly be implemented at various places throughout the world. Obvious further candidates are Southeast Asia and Central and South America. It may be the case that in the future, international repositories able to dispose the wastes from anywhere in the world will be implemented in regions specifically chosen because of their extremely favorable properties. The same scientists currently involved in the Arius association for promoting regional and international disposal worked earlier in the Pangaea Project, which developed the so-called high-isolation concept for geological disposal. High-isolation sites have various factors contributing to long-term safety (Black and Chapman 2001). These are
highly stable geology in tectonics
extensive flat topography
arid climate, stable for more than 100,000 years
no fast pathways from the deep repository to the surface; horizontal sediments favorable
absence of economic resources or major aquifers
low-permeability rock with good construction properties
saline, stratified deep groundwaters with chemically reducing conditions
Regions that fulfill all these characteristics have been identified in various
parts of the world, in Australia, southern Africa, Argentina, China, Mongolia, and Russia. Whether any of these particularly suitable sites will be considered for the implementation of international repositories is still an open question.
We come now to the overall conclusions of this talk with respect to the siting of deep geological disposal facilities within Europe.
Geologic disposal is the only feasible option for long-term management of spent nuclear or high-level radioactive wastes that does not depend on continuing care and maintenance.
Europe is at the forefront of the field with respect to siting. This is illustrated by the excellent progress being made in Finland and Sweden.
European countries are in the middle of the field with respect to siting. This is best illustrated by France, where at least one site has been chosen as a potential deep disposal site, the necessary technical work is underway, and societal consent including the local population has been achieved.
Europe is at the back of the field with respect to siting. This is illustrated to some extent by Spain, where political opposition to the process has led the government agency simply to postpone all siting efforts for 10 years. In the United Kingdom the government has gone even further back. Following the catastrophic failure of the Sellafield program, the United Kingdom has officially decided that the geological option is only one of several alternative options, all of which must be re-examined. Worldwide, only the Canadian program, also following a major programmatic failure, has taken this radical step backwards.
Europe needs to move ahead with repository implementation, both national and regional. This has been recognized by the European Commission, which has issued its 2002 Directive on Nuclear Waste (EC 2002).
The whole world needs to move ahead in disposal and needs to include both national and shared international solutions in the approaches being considered (IAEA 1998).
It is important in the scope of this workshop to discuss how Russia can contribute to meet the above objectives. Russia, with its diverse nuclear activities, certainly needs a geological disposal option to take care of its own wastes safely. Russia is one of the few countries that have expressed interest in helping other countries to take care of their waste. This initiative has also received support from the director general of the IAEA (ElBaradei 2004). In fact, Russia has a history of re-importing spent fuel delivered to various countries and of planning for further treatment of this fuel and disposal of the wastes within the Russian Federation. The numerous political, legal, and technical issues that affect the potential for Russia to become the host to a shared disposal facility should all be addressed in the coming years. This is a matter of urgency for Russia, for numerous other countries in Western, Central and Eastern Europe, and also for other countries in the world, in particular the United States.
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