Just when you thought 2020 couldn’t get any weirder, geological disposal programmes around the globe are making significant steps forward, all at the same time.
More seems to have happened, in sociopolitical terms, in the past month than perhaps in the rest of this Century combined:
Country situations are analysed in more detail below, but taken together, it seems clear that geological disposal will become a feature of media and political focus in countries around the world over the coming 18-24 months.
Public and political reaction to, and media comment on, the events in each country are remarkably similar, regardless of cultural differences: after initial ‘horror’, a dawning realisation that this is an issue that needs to be addressed, and a concern that decisions are made ‘justly’ and based on scientific evidence.
In the Covid-era, geological disposal seems to be being added to the list of ‘uncomfortable conversations’ our societies have to have, as we all look to ‘build back better’.
The overwhelming vote in favour by Osthammar’s council was expected. The council had previously decided to dispense with a community advisory referendum, because successive opinion polls had clearly indicated increasing support for the repository amongst local people.
The local vote was required before the Swedish national government could make a final determination. That decision may not come until 2021, as the Government are also considering a difference of opinion between nuclear regulators and the country’s Environmental Court about the corrosion of copper canisters in which radwaste will be packaged for disposal.
However, the odds seem likely that the Swedish community of Osthammar will follow their Finnish neighbours, and become the second community internationally to give informed ‘consent’ to hosting a geological repository.
Events in Japan may foreshadow what will happen in the UK. Two local mayors tentatively raised the prospect of their communities opening initial discussions about potentially hosting a repository, setting off a firestorm of political and media reaction — leading to one of the mayor’s own home being firebombed.
Each mayor held a series of public meetings with residents, and the majority decision within both communities was to open initial discussions. Similar to the UK, this stage is more a ‘desk-top’ exercise, exploring whether the local geology could even host a repository. The community will receive grants for being in the process, but are not obliged to remain within the process.
The two communities were initially characterised as ‘impoverished’ and ‘so desperate’ that they were entering the process because they had little choice. The regional Governor voiced his opposition to the plans. However, as residents confirmed they were content to proceed, media commentary noted the need for a geological repository, but wanting the selection process to be open and ‘fair’.
Given Japan’s nuclear ‘history’, this issue will remain a hot political and media topic. The wider sociopolitical question seems not to be whether a repository is required, but how the site is selected. There are still concerns amongst anti-nuclear activists that despite Government ‘commitments’, once inside the process communities will not be allowed to walk away.
A 77-year old man has admitted throwing a petrol bomb at the mayor’s house, in protest at the repository discussions. This clearly will be a passionate debate, but hopefully, regardless of outcome, one based increasingly on reason, reasonableness, and addressing local peoples’ concerns. Very early days in a very long and emotive process. But an important first step.
There was huge media and political reaction in Germany to the publication of geological data that ruled out almost half of Germany’s landmass as suitable to host a deep repository.
Areas ruled out included the site of Germany’s existing ‘temporary’ geological repository at Gorleben. However, areas still included in the analysis (notably Bavaria and Saxony) have already started voicing their objections.
Those objections do not seem based on any opposition to geological disposal in principle, but more to naked Nimbyism. The Green Party are notable in their support for this science-based approach to geological disposal.
The next stage involves more detailed geological analysis, during which time communities will be invited to discuss the issues before considering whether to become more formally involved. The Germans hope to marry a science-based analysis of potential sites with finding communities in those areas potentially willing to host a repository.
However, it seems clear in the short-term, with federal and local elections in the offing, that geological disposal will be much higher up on the political agenda than it has ever been before.
The acquisition of 1500 acres of farmland allows NWMO to complete detailed geological borehole assessment programmes in both of the two final areas under consideration to host a deep geological repository.
However, despite years of extensive community engagement and education programmes, it seems many people in the affected areas are only just awakening to the fact that a repository may be built where they live.
A newly-formed citizens coalition against the repository plans admitted that a leaflet they distributed to 50 thousand homes was not based on any science, but baulked at NWMO’s initial pushback that this was wilful fake news/misinformation. NWMO are saying that debate is important and to be encouraged, to properly address public concerns, based on science and fact, not fearmongering and notions.
Following the collapse earlier in the year elsewhere in Ontario of plans for a low-level radwaste repository (largely because local indigenous peoples had not felt properly engaged in the process) more sensitive management of community sentiment is to be expected. NWMO’s approach to engaging with multiple communities over the years has been viewed as a model for the rest of the world, but their ground-breaking clearly continues to throw up new challenges.
All of this against a backdrop of concern about Canada’s radwaste management regulatory regime, and continued angst from US states bordering the Great Lakes.
After public comments from two Cumbrian local authorities earlier in the summer, there is guarded expectation in the UK that one or more local communities will come forward for initial exploratory discussions, as in Japan.
However, the broader turbulent current sociopolitical environment in the UK may act as a brake on any such movement this calendar year.
The leader of Hungary’s main Opposition political party raises the stakes, by calling for a public debate on radioactive waste, saying it’s “one of the greatest challenges of the coming decades”, and demanding that any repository site have the consent of the local community.
Like so much else in the US at the moment, what’s going on in geological disposal is anyone’s guess. However, it seems likely, regardless of who’s President, that there will be a reassessment of siting policy, based on some form of ‘consent’.
There seems no dispute about the scientific case and environmental benefits of geological disposal, with even one of the US’ leading nuclear community groups making supportive proposals. The question, as always, is the sociopolitical issue of “how” to find a site.
Political pressure locally to remove radwaste from decommissioned nuclear facilities is growing. As is the cost. South Carolina recently won a US$650m lawsuit against the federal government. Other states may consider the same. The cost of doing nothing is becoming greater than the cost of doing something.
Alternative disposal solutions (such as deep boreholes) and interim stop-gapes are being investigated — but temporary underground holding facilities proposed in New Mexico and West Texas are facing increasing opposition, fuelled by concerns of the oil industry.
A very articulate analysis of the lack of political interest in permanently disposing of radioactive waste, when such interest is most required, has been set out this month in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientist.
With a senior National Nuclear Security Administration official warning that a geological disposal facility will need to be open by 2050, when WIPP is due to close, time is running out to start planning for such an eventuality.
Rest of the World