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Swedish regulator recommends approval of nuclear waste storage plan

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
Charly Hultén ‒ WISE Sweden

The Swedish Radiation Safety Authority, SSM, has recommended the Swedish government give the go-ahead to KBS-3, the nuclear power industry's plans for a final repository for nuclear fuel waste at Forsmark, north of Stockholm. The statement is only a recommendation; it does not constitute approval of the application.

The application for permission to construct KBS-3 is being assessed concurrently by the Environmental Court and by SSM. The Court examines the application against the requirements of the Environmental Code; SSM examines it against the Act on Nuclear Activities and the Radiation Protection Act. Because of the SSM's expertise, the Court also solicits comment from SSM as input into the EIA process mandated under the Environmental Code. It is in this latter context that SSM submitted comments to the Court on June 29.

The June 29 recommendation came amidst mounting concerns as to the ability of the envisaged copper canisters to contain fuel waste in the longer term. Other outstanding issues concern the industry's failure to study alternatives to the chosen KBS-3 method, notably storage in deep boreholes, and the siting process.

Swedish environmental law requires applicants seeking permission to undertake hazardous projects to justify their choice of site, method and technology including a thorough study of alternative options. This, to ensure the "best possible" solutions. The requirement is not present in the legislation SSM normally deals with. That may explain why SSM contents itself with "good enough" ‒ as has the applicant, SKB, for many years. SKB is a company formed specifically to develop a system for final storage of nuclear fuel waste; it is wholly owned by operators of nuclear reactors in Sweden.

Critics of the KBS-3 scheme advocate siting in a region of hydrological influx toward the repository, rather than outflow from it. Both the sites that SKB chose to study are coastal, where outflow predominates. The regulator is content with the fact that the bedrock at the selected site is drier than it is at the other site.

As to method, environmental groups have pointed to the advantages of a deeper repository, 2‒3 km deep into the bedrock, as opposed to the 400‒500 meter depth envisaged in the KBS-3 system. For over 30 years SKB has consistently resisted the thought of any alternative to KBS. The regulatory authority uses a painfully circular argument to defend SKB's choice: neither system is proven. The KBS system has been studied for almost 40 years; the alternative, deep boreholes, has only been worked on for a decade or so, and not at all in Swedish bedrock. Ergo, the KBS concept is superior.

And, perhaps most crucial, the viability of the copper canister – the first line of defense in preventing leakage of radioactivity – might just as well be assessed later on in the process, says SSM.

MKG, the environmental organization, regularly submits solicited comment, most recently at the end of May. There, they argue that SKB's application should be rejected, the prime reason being increasing concern among chemists and radiation scientists that the copper canisters may not stand up to the heat and radiation that their contents give off. 'Creep deformation' of the copper shell is one principal concern; corrosion of the metal in the harsh climate of the repository is another.

Democratic insight at risk

MKG demands that possible weaknesses in the canister be investigated fully in the course of the ongoing EIA process. Postponing consideration of the issue until after the KBS-3 system has received government approval, they point out, will remove the issue from all democratic insight and accountability. Once the government approves the scheme, the open EIA process, in which several non-governmental organizations participate, will end. And no longer will the government have a say ‒ resolving outstanding issues will then be a matter between the waste company and the regulator, which is what SKB has wanted from the start.

How has SSM reached such industry-friendly conclusions, and why break off the vetting process now? Only they can say. But they haven't.

One thing the spokesperson did say, repeatedly and with emphasis, is that management and storage of nuclear waste, fuel waste included, is "the industry's responsibility". Not the regulator's, not the government's, but the industry's. This is no news to anyone in Sweden ‒ but the emphasis may be a clue.

The entire repository project is financed by a fee charged to reactor owners or operators, based on the electricity their reactors deliver. Since 2008, these fees may be complemented by fixed sums levied on licensed operators that no longer produce nuclear energy. The fees are paid into the Nuclear Waste Fund, from which SKB finances its R&D efforts.

The nuclear fuel waste storage project is vastly underfinanced, and the government has announced a sizable increase in the waste management fees to be charged to the remaining reactors ‒ a move SSM itself has long advocated. Even so, some analysts still predict a sizable shortfall.

Recent months have seen definite decisions on the part of power companies to decommission four (of ten) Swedish reactors, plus a threat on the part of state-owned power giant Vattenfall to shut down all five of its remaining reactors unless the government repealed the capacity tax. (The government has set about repealing it.) But the fact is, not a single Swedish reactor is producing electricity at competitive prices just now, capacity tax or no capacity tax.

Perhaps SSM is merely trying to ensure that a solution is arrived at while there are still functioning reactors around to pay the cost of the repository. This is sheer conjecture, but the puzzle pieces do fit.

For a catalogue of environmentalists' principal complaints regarding KBS-3 see Nuclear Monitor #706, 2010,

Sources (in Swedish):

‒ Strålsäkerhetsmyndigheten: Presskonferens, 29 juni 2016.

‒ Strålsäkerhetsmyndigheten: Yttrande över ansökan från Svensk Kärnbränslehantering AB om tillstånd enligt miljöbalken för ett system för hantering och slutförvaring av använt kärnbränsle, 29-06-2016, ss 11-14.

‒ MKG: 'Avstyrk slutförvarsansökan', Nyhetsbrev 1/2016,

‒ MKG: 'Strålsäkerhetsmyndigheten tillstyrker slutförvar, trots olösta säkerhetsproblem', Nyhetsbrev 2/2016,

‒ SNF/MKG. Yttrande i sak till Mark- och miljödomstolen ... avseende Svenk Kärnbränslehantering AB:s ansökan enligt miljöbalken rörande ett slutförvarssystem för använt kärnbränsle ... . Stockholm, 2016-05-31. (An English translation will be available in September.)