Repositories

“The greatest minds in the nuclear establishment have been searching for an answer to the radioactive waste problem for fifty years, and they’ve finally got one: haul it down a dirt road and dump it on an Indian reservation”. — Winona LaDuke, Indigenous World Uranium Summit, 2006

Not a single repository exists anywhere in the world for the disposal of high level waste from nuclear power reactors. Only a few countries have identified a repository site. Plans are being advanced in several countries to build deep underground repositories for high level waste, but as former IAEA Director-General Mohamed El Baradei (2000, 2003) notes, these plans face significant obstacles including lack of public acceptance, cost, lack of expertise and lack of suitable sites.

A 2006 survey of 39 countries with civil nuclear power or other significant sources of radioactive waste found that 19 have decided in favour of deep geological disposal and 10 have expressed a preference for this approach (Sustainable Development Commission, 2006).

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Interdisciplinary Study into the future of nuclear power notes that if global nuclear output was increased almost three-fold to 1000 GWe, and assuming direct disposal rather than reprocessing, new repository storage capacity equal to the legal limit established for Yucca Mountain (70,000 tonnes) would have to be created somewhere in the world “roughly every three or four years”. With a ten-fold increase in nuclear power, new repository storage capacity equal to the legal limit for Yucca Mountain would have to be created somewhere in the world every year. The MIT Interdisciplinary Study notes that “the organizational and political challenges of siting will surely be formidable.” (Ansolabehere et al., 2003.)

Former Chair of the Board of the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation, Ziggy Switkowski (2009), claims that “critics are correct in noting that no such [high level waste] repository is in place, though several will open in the next decade.” However it is unlikely that a single high level nuclear waste repository will open anywhere in the world in the next decade. According to World Nuclear Association web-papers, Sweden plans to have a repository operational in 2023; Finland is working on plans for a repository “with a view to operation from 2020”; and France has a target date of 2025 (http://world-nuclear.org/infomap.aspx).

Plans for a high level waste repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada, USA, were abandoned in 2009. Over 20 years of work was put into the repository plan, and over A$10 billion spent. The repository plan was controversial and subject to occasional scandals. These included a scandal involving the falsification of safety data in relation to groundwater modeling. Studies found that Yucca Mountain could not meet the existing radiation protection standards in the long term and subsequent moves by the US Environmental Protection Agency to weaken radiation protection standards also generated controversy.

Shallow repositories for low and short-lived intermediate level waste have been established in over 30 countries. Many have experienced problems. Three repositories in the USA have been closed because of environmental problems. Farmers in the Champagne region of France have taken legal action in relation to a leaking radioactive waste dump. In Asse, Germany, all 126,000 barrels of waste already placed in a repository are being removed because of large-scale water infiltration over a period of two decades.