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Swedish repository plans inch forward, yet years beyond industry counterparts
An application to extend the Forsmark short-lived radioactive waste final repository was among developments making December a busy month for Swedish nuclear.
By Jason Deign
If you consider the laid-back progress of Sweden’s nuclear market then having three big stories in a month made December a hectic time for decommissioning.
And the first announcement of the month, regarding the delivery of a new transport vessel for the Swedish Nuclear Fuel and Waste Management Company (Svensk Kärnbränslehantering AB or SKB), was hardly the biggest of the trio.
Nor was the news of the Swedish Ministry of the Environment and Energy approving a major hike in the fees paid by utilities to cover the cost of nuclear waste disposal, even though the fee almost doubled, from SEK0.022kr (about USD$0.0029) to 0.04kr ($0.0052) per kWh.
This was a scheduled three-yearly review and in June the Swedish Radiation Safety Authority (Strålsäkerhetsmyndigheten or SSM) had already recommended setting the fee at 0.038kr ($0.0049).
Unsurprisingly, the news went generally unnoticed among the general public amid an unfolding constitutional crisis and low energy prices.
In contrast, the next day was arguably a red-letter date for the nation’s nuclear decommissioning plans as SKB handed in two 6,000-page applications for an extension to the Swedish final repository (SFR) for short-lived radioactive waste at Forsmark.
"The extension of the SFR is an important milestone for SKB and for the Swedish nuclear waste programme," said Christopher Eckerberg, SKB's chief executive, in a press statement.
“We are now taking a step closer towards the aim of being able to deal with radioactive waste both from operations and from decommissioning of the Swedish nuclear power plants.”
The applications, lodged with the SSM and the land and environmental court at
Nacka District Court, refer to a facility that has been operating since 1988 at the Forsmark Nuclear Power Plant in the Östhammar Municipality, Uppsala, east-central Sweden.
The expansion plans would see the SFR almost tripling in size to accommodate a total of around 171,000 cubic metres of waste through the addition of six new rock chambers at the same depth as the lower part of the current facility.
The extra space is intended to house future short-lived waste not only from two reactors that are being decommissioned at Barsebäck, but also from most of the rest of the Swedish fleet when it reaches end-of-life.
The applications include plans to create a new, larger entry tunnel so all nine of Sweden’s boiling water reactors can be stored intact within the repository.
"What we show in the applications is that the extension can take place safely, without any negative impact on the existing plant. Safety will also be maintained during operation of the extended plant and after closure," said project manager Peter Larsson in a SKB press release.
The approval process for the SFR extension is expected to take several years, with officials for SKB and SSM refusing to be drawn on specific timeframes.
However, Simon Roth of SKB’s Communication Department confirms that the nuclear waste management company, which is run as a non-commercial entity by the Swedish utilities, would not cease work on the project while SSM ponders the plans.
“We cannot stop working,” he says. “It’s always a delicate balance between how much we should do ahead of what the regulatory body says that we must do.”
In addition, SFR is only one of three separate repositories being planned for Sweden.
SKB has also applied for a licence to build a separate facility for spent nuclear fuel at Forsmark, to replace the interim repository that has been operating since 1985 at Oskarshamn, in the southeast of the country.
Verdict this year
SSM has been pondering the application since 2011 and could be poised to issue its verdict later this year, according to David Persson at SSM’s press office. “I think that during 2015 or 2016 we are planning on doing a statement to the environmental court,” he says.
“Probably by about 2017 we will have a statement to the government.”
The World Nuclear Organisation says the site should enter into operation after 2020 and will have 60 kilometres of tunnels with capacity for 12,000 tonnes of waste buried 500 metres below ground in granite that is 1.9 billion years old.
The site will use the SKB kärnbränslesäkerhet (KBS-3) nuclear waste disposal technology being planned for Posiva’s Onkalo repository in Finland, which involves housing used fuel in copper canisters that are then surrounded by bentonite clay.
Once built, the Swedish spent fuel site should have space for 6,000 canisters of waste. In the meantime, though, SKB has yet to submit an application for a low- and intermediate-level waste repository that will house three pressurised water reactors owned by Vattenfall.
This third repository is “not even fully designed” yet, says Roth. The fact that Sweden is moving ahead with plans for two final repository sites already shows just how advanced it is on the thorny subject of how to deal with nuclear waste. And perhaps those in Sweden directly in the throws of repository construction, regulation and public relations should herald more discussion amongst European and US counterparts so that the nuclear power industry as a whole can have a more cohesive plan for nuclear waste.