NPRE Undergrads Learn from Swedish Success in Spent Nuclear Fuel Storage

7/17/2014

NPRE undergrad Joel Exner examines the rock formation at the Äspö Hard Rock Laboratory in Sweden.
NPRE undergrad Joel Exner examines the rock formation at the Äspö Hard Rock Laboratory in Sweden.

Four NPRE undergraduates who journeyed to Sweden this summer to learn about its plans for handling long-term storage of spent nuclear fuel gained insight into why that country’s plan has garnered more public support than the United States’ approach.

Final approval is expected next year for construction of the Spent Fuel Repository in Forsmark, on Sweden’s eastern coast line. Forsmark residents competed with their neighbors to the south, in Oskarshamn, which also wanted to host the final repository and which is home to the Äspö Hard Rock Laboratory, a unique geological research facility. There, experiments have been performed 500 meters underground in preparation for the final site.

Äspö Hard Rock Laboratory
Äspö Hard Rock Laboratory
Residents of the two municipalities in consideration wanted to be chosen because of expected financial gains. In fact, said NPRE Assistant Prof. Tomasz Kozlowski, Sweden’s economic development arm has offered the runner-up $40 million to make up for jobs not gained with the final site and expected to be lost when the laboratory is no longer needed.

In contrast, the Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository, designated as the United States’ solution in 1987, was defunded in 2010 for political reasons. Environmentalists and residents of Las Vegas, over 100 miles from the site, highly contested its designation. Early in 2012, a Department of Energy Blue Ribbon Commission urged the federal government to locate a consolidated, geological repository, but advised that political stagnation could be avoided by creating an independent organization with access to the federal Nuclear Waste Fund. While some government officials continue to favor Yucca Mountain, the issue remains unresolved.

“In the United States, the building of a long-term nuclear waste storage facility has been far from successful,” observed Sarika Malani, one of the students. “In Sweden, two municipalities volunteered for the repository to be built on their land, and truly wanted their land to be chosen for the final site.

“This difference in community approval between the two countries depended partly on the way in which the members of the community were approached, and the methods used to do site investigations. The system which SKB (the Swedish Nuclear Fuel and Waste Management Company) employed proved to be very successful in the planning of the repository.”

“Seeing how SKB methodically informed communities that are geologically eligible for the repository was eye-opening,” student Joel Exner observed. “SKB’s transparency on the impact of building the repository has paid dividends. When the community was informed, the perks (e.g. job creation and town infrastructure improvements) outweighed any concerns. In fact, in a recent poll in the municipality where the repository is planned, 82 percent of the public said they were in favor of having the repository in their hometown, with only 11 percent opposed. That sort of public excitement over hosting a nuclear facility seems almost impossible to imagine in the U.S., so it was great to hear how SKB cultivated this public attitude.”

What they learned on the trip also made an impact on students Kevin D'Souza and Patrick Keane. “I had little to no knowledge on this topic prior to this (summer) course,” said D’Souza. “This trip opened my eyes to how other countries approach this controversial subject. I am now more confident in our society to grow and learn the truth about nuclear energy and spent fuel storage.” Added Keane, “I believe that the underground storage of radioactive matter is the most effective, and efficient, method of shielding the public from tons of spent nuclear fuel.”

Unknowns remain even with the underground storage solution, Exner pointed out. “Engineering this repository means trying to foresee any problems that might arise over the next 100,000 years, and it was interesting to see the potential issues that were being researched. One question that stuck out was from the world of microbiology: could little-known subterranean microorganisms live near the canisters (in which the spent fuel would be stored), and would they produce copper-corroding sulfide? I don't think a single student in the classroom knew that microorganisms could cause any problems.”

Malani, Exner, D’Souza and Keane were the only U.S. students to have participated in the course. Kozlowski, who had worked for Sweden’s Royal Institute of Technology (KTH) prior to joining the NPRE faculty in 2011, has connections with the course’s organizers and gave one of this summer’s lectures. NPRE Adjunct Prof. William Roy gave four lectures. Kozlowski explained the course was limited to 30 students, with half coming from Sweden and the remainder from other countries.

Students participating attended lectures the first week, and did field work the second, including mapping in the Äspö Hard Rock Laboratory.

Sweden derives 45 percent of its power from 10 nuclear reactors at three sites, while another 45 percent of the country’s power comes from hydroelectricity. The country does not have its own oil resources.

“One of the best things about the trip was the ability to meet students from around the world whose backgrounds weren’t necessarily in nuclear engineering,” Malani said. “This allowed students to get many different perspectives from not only the countries represented, but also from the different educational backgrounds (chemistry, geology, environmental engineering, etc.). These differences allowed for a wide spectra of questions and opinions, which enhanced the learning experience.”

Said D’Souza, “The most important thing I learned was how organized and thoughtful a project as large and impacting as spent fuel storage has to be. The amount of planning that has gone into Sweden’s storage facility is remarkable and has opened my eyes to the vast world of engineering. Prior to this course, I never looked at topics with the big picture in mind. Now, after learning the details of the back end of the fuel cycle, I have more of a base for knowledge from other classes. I also am more open to the post-graduation opportunities that exist outside of the U.S.”

Said Exner, “Simply seeing another country succeed in solving the spent nuclear fuel storage issue has sparked an interest in the field that I wouldn't have thought possible prior to this trip. Sweden's success makes you want to be involved in figuring out a long-term solution in the U.S. We should learn from SKB, from both a technical and PR standpoint.”