Spent Fuel Storage Proposal in Sweden Released for Public Comment

(Published in the WISE Nuclear Monitor, 11 February 2016, No. 818.)

In Sweden, on 29 January 2016 the nuclear industry’s application to construct a spent fuel repository beside the Forsmark nuclear power station and an encapsulation facility near the Oskarshamn nuclear power station was released for public comment by both the Swedish Radiation Safety Authority (Strålsäkerhetsmydigheten, SSM) and the Land and Environmental Court (Mark- och miljödomstolen, MMD). SSM examines the application according to the Nuclear Activities Act and MMD according to the Environmental Code.

On 5 February 2016, for all countries around the Baltic Sea, the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency announced consultation on the application according to articles 4 and 5 of Convention on Environmental Impact Assessment in a Transboundary Context (Espoo Convention) and EU Directive 2011/92/EU for interim storage, encapsulation and final disposal of spent nuclear fuel. Comments are requested no later than 15 April 2016.

The application is to construct a spent fuel repository using a method the Swedish nuclear industry calls KBS-3 (an abbreviation of kärnbränslesäkerhet, nuclear fuel safety; the “3” refers to the third variation). It is a KBS type facility that the Finnish government approved 12 November 2015. The method consists of storing spent fuel in cast iron canisters encapsulated in copper and placed, surrounded by bentonite clay, in holes in the floor of tunnels about 500 meters under the surface in crystalline rock.

An Important Milestone for Sweden and Internationally

Releasing the application for comment is an important milestone in the Swedish regulatory process. It is also an important milestone internationally. The nuclear industry worldwide is keeping a close eye on the process, eagerly hoping for approval of the project and thus being able to claim the spent fuel management problem is solved.

In Finland, the application process is less rigorous than in Sweden. In Finland, a facility about 500 meters below the surface was constructed before the government approved moving forward with a testing phase. In Sweden, if the government approves the application, excavation cannot begin until conditions are set by SSM and the MMD.

The Swedish nuclear industry, via its company SKB, submitted its KBS application to SSM and MMD on 16 March 2011. The period from then until 29 January 2016, almost five years, was needed for SSM and MMD to determine if the application was of adequate quality to be released for public comment. The application was examined to determine if anything was missing. MMD had three rounds of public comment in this phase. As well, SSM made several requests to SKB to supplement the application with further information, e.g. regarding the risk of copper corroding in oxygen free water. MMD however made no such requests but only asked SKB to respond to comments from others. SKB responded by providing very limited supplementary information to both SSM and MMD. Comments by environmental organizations were in generally ignored by SKB and did not result in submission of more information by the company.

Even though the phase of determining if the application was adequate for release for public comment took almost five years, both SSM and MMD have now given the public only a few months to comment on the proposal. The deadline for comments set by MMD is 30 March 2016 and the deadline set by SSM is 30 April 2016.

The next step in the MMD review process is a “main hearing” where oral presentations can be made. Information presented in written form cannot also be given orally. The hearing is scheduled for some time between October and December 2016.

The following step is for MMD to make its statement to the government, which is scheduled for some time between February and June 2017. SSM intends to make its statement to the government about the same time. There may still be delays in the process.

After considering the statements by SSM and MMD, the government can reject the application. If the government is considering approving the application, it must first ask the approval of the Municipality of Östhammar (where Forsmark is located) and the Municipality of Oskarshamn before making its decision. If one or both of the municipalities do not approve, the government can in any case still approve the project. As the next Swedish general election (federal, regional and municipal) is 9 September 2018, the government could postpone its decision until after the election.

If the government approves the application, it is then up to MMD and SSM to set conditions for implementation of the project. SKB can then begin construction. The MMD’s decision on conditions can be appealed.

Main Technical Issues

The main technical issues are not unique to Sweden. These include the method in general (e.g. retrievability and monitorability, including limitation of nuclear proliferation risks), location (e.g. proximity to water bodies, other nuclear facilities and population centers), and geologic conditions regardless of placement on the surface or at some depth. Each method in turn has its own specific technical issues depending on where it is located.

Two main issues of the proposed KBS-3 facility are the corrosion rate of copper and the behaviour of bentonite clay under different hydrological conditions. Both topics are highly technical and comprehensible only to advanced specialists. The same goes for determination of adequate geological stability. Estimation of earthquake risk is very complicated. SKB specialists have not found any technical problem that blocks their project. Independent specialists are however not in agreement.

There are aspects of the KBS-3 proposal that do not require technical expertise, e.g. if monitorability should be required (none is currently included), and placement inland instead of on the Baltic coast to lower the risk of contaminating the Baltic Sea. Both these aspects do not fall into the category of being determinative regarding rejection of a KBS facility. A monitoring system could be added and a site found inland.

The law according to the Environmental Code requires examination of alternative methods. To date, SKB has not according to several stakeholders adequately examined very deep bore holes, dry storage at shallow depths or inside mountains, nor hardened on-site storage (HOSS) of the type discussed in the US. It is up to the MMD to interpret if the legal requirement for examination of alternatives has been met.

Political Timing and Sustainable Development

The issue of political timing is perhaps the most important issue from the perspective of sustainable development. Establishment of a KBS-3 facility will give the nuclear industry the opportunity of claiming that the spent fuel management problem is “solved” and that thus use of nuclear power can be continued and expanded. At the same time, presently existing waste must be handled in the best manner possible. However, adding to the volume of the waste exacerbates the problem and increases costs. Delaying a “solution” until nuclear power is no longer considered viable could result in fewer resources being squandered on nuclear power.

Funding for Environmental Organizations

The current law regulating funding for environmental organizations to participate in the application process states that funding can only be used up to one year after the application is released for public comment. The government, via the Ministry of Environment and Energy is however reviewing the law. SSM has recommended that funding be extended until the government decision according to the Environmental Code (i.e. regarding the statement from MMD), but be kept limited to the KBS-3 application. Environmental organizations have requested the funding be made permanent and be broadened to include all forms of nuclear waste and decommissioning of nuclear facilities. As can be expected, the nuclear industry does not want the funding period to be extended nor broadened.

What You Can Do

Anyone, anywhere in the world, can make a submission to SSM and MMD. All submissions become part of the public record. Submissions sent to MMD are forwarded to SKB for comment and sent out to a distribution list.

Requests can be made for more time to examine the application. Considering the large volume of material making up the proposal, at least a year is reasonable.

Organizations in countries that are parties to the Espoo Convention (see https://treaties.un.org/Pages/ViewDetails.aspx?src=TREATY&mtdsg_no=XXVII-4&chapter=27&lang=en) should send comments to the Swedish EPA with copies to SSM and MMD.

Contact Information for Submissions

Land and Environmental Court
Attention: mmd.nacka.avdelning3@dom.se
Note case number: M 1333-11

Swedish Radiation Safety Authority
Attention: registrator@ssm.se
Note case number: SSM2011-1135

Swedish Environmental Protection Agency
Attention: Åsa Wisén
Note case number: NV-07138-15.

For More Information

KBS-3 and the Final Repository Application – A Little Help With the Flow of Information, nonuclear.se/kbs3#en

Swedish NGO Office for Nuclear Waste Review (MKG), mkg.se/en

Espoo Convention information at www.skb.se