Finnish Approval of Radwaste Repository Safety Case Pre-mature

On 12th February 2015 World Nuclear News reported that Finland’s radiation and nuclear safety authority (STUK) had given final approval to Posiva’s application to construct a final repository and waste encapsulation plant.

Posiva is jointly owned by Finnish nuclear utilities Fortum and TVO. It submitted its application to the Ministry of Employment and the Economy in December 2012 with the aim of emplacing the spent fuel from its owners’ nuclear power plants a repository at Olkiluoto, in the municipality of Eurajoki.

The spent fuel will be packed in copper canisters and then embedded in the bedrock beneath the island of Olkiluoto at a depth of up to 450 m. STUK has told the government that the facility “can be built to be safe.” According to Chemical Engineer  the Government still needs to approve an operating licence before the repository can start processing waste. Posiva expects to apply for a licence in 2020.

Swedish used fuel management company Svensk Karnbranslehantering AB (SKB) welcomed the development, saying that the plan was similar to a Swedish permit consideration for a repository for used nuclear fuel at Forsmark. The planned KBS-3 repository for used nuclear fuel would use the same storage method as that which SKB wants to use, it said.

Johan Swahn, Director of the NGO Office for Nuclear Waste (MKG) says:

“It is unfortunate that the Finnish regulator STUK went ahead with this decision. The proper action for them would have been to wait for a decision on the safety case of the parallel Swedish license application from the Swedish regulator SSM. It is certainly true that there is a problem for the industry in Sweden (SKB) and Finland (Posiva) to show that the barrier system of copper canister and clay buffer will work as assumed in the safety cases. Even if STUK has put a number of man-years into their review, the Swedish review has until now put in at least tenfold the amount of man-years and are still asking the Swedish industry for more information about for example copper corrosion issues.

STUK’s information on their home page:

That STUK gave an approval saying “studies to further ensure the functioning of the copper capsule and the surrounding clay material are also necessary”, does not give the assurance necessary for a decision of this dignity. It is true that there is a step-wise decision-making process and the project can be stopped in the future, but to accept a safety case where there is a growing uncertainty of the industry’s fundamental scientific description of how copper and clay behaves in a repository environment is just not acceptable.

The Swedish regulator SSM was apparently alerted beforehand of the upcoming decision as SSM published an op-ed in the Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter the same day describing the situation for the Swedish review of the SKB application. The review process is now soon in its fifth year — the Swedish license application was submitted in March 2011 — and still the discussion is on-going what additional work SKB has to do for the application to be complete. In the op-ed SSM writes that it has finished its analyses of many issues and will start to publish the results during 2015. However the regulator states:

“Questions in the authority’s review of SKB’s application that remain to assess are the long-term integrity of the technical and geological barriers that will contain the spent nuclear fuel, i.e., the copper canister, the bentonite clay buffer and the surrounding rock. [my translation]”

We are now waiting for a new report in February from SKB on experiments carried out to study copper corrosion in water free from oxygen gas. SKB is struggling in an up-hill battle to try and explain more and more evidence available that copper corrodes at much too high rates in a repository environment than the safety case assumes.

The SSM op-ed article can be found here: . I would take all the time-frames given with a little scepticism. The regulator will have to adapt its work to decisions taken by the parallel review process in the Environmental Court. The court is expected to take a number of decisions during 2015 that will be important for the continued process. Only if the court agrees with SKB that requests for additional work from different actors should be denied and agrees with SKB that the court should not take radiation safety issues under its consideration, including copper corrosion, can the time frame described in the op-ed be kept. If everything goes SKB’s way the court and the regulator would give their opinions on the application to the Swedish government in 2017. It will be the government that takes a final decision.

However, so far the process has not reached the approval of the application for final review. Not until the court and the regulator agree that the license application is complete enough will it officially be “announced” and the review move from a completeness stage to a review on issues in the court.”

For more on the Copper Corrosion issue see “Nuclear Waste Update” in nuClear News No.70

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