Finland’s 100,000 year recycling plan

by juli boggs

I know, it’s been months. You thought I was dead, you’d thought I’d given up, but it’s not true. Look, here I am! Bored in these dog days of summer to the point where I am actually (gasp) working on my nuclear book again (applause). While writing a book is something I have no idea how to do, I do understand the sort of short form journalism I’ve been creating for a while now and figured that blogging my research as I go may help me to develop an idea of how it can all come together in a longer form. Maybe this book will come from a compilation of ideas, all tied up with a pretty ribbon. Or maybe this book will come about from conversations and revisions and comments. Whatever this book comes out to be, if it comes out to be, this is where I know how to start…

This summer while traveling through France (yep, that’s partly where I’ve been instead of at the writing table), I met an American artist who clued me in to a documentary called Into Eternity by Michael Madsen that explores the unprecedented way in which Finland is dealing with their nuclear waste and attempting to answer some unanswerable questions along the way.

into eternity

The documentary (which you can stream for free on YouTube) follows the building process of a nearly two thousand foot deep geological repository for Finland’s nuclear waste. At the end of the ten year digging process their used fuel will be bundled up and stored in casks at the repository’s deepest point, the tunnels capped off, and the site completely hidden. The site, on the property of one Finland’s two nuclear power plants, is called “Onkalo,” Finnish for “hidden,” and is being built to last for the lifecycle of the fuel- 100,000 years. One hundred thousand years?! And I’m stressed out about turning 27 next week.

onkalo still

Onkalo has brought up many issues that seem more like thought experiments than practical engineering quandaries. How does one best secure a site for such an unimaginable length of time? They’ve made it self-contained so it will not require upkeep or oversight, they’ve argued about what possible languages or runes to leave as warning markers at the entrance or whether to leave nothing at all, instead hoping that it remains hidden and forgotten forever. They have even built the tunnels to retain their integrity through the added stress of the next ice age which they figure is due in another 60,000 years.

The construction which began in 2004 has already reached its final depth of 1,710 feet, and regulators are now applying for licensing to begin constructing the repository which, once built, will be large enough to store fuel for the next 100 years until its final encapsulation around the year 2120.

onkalo depth

Innovative? Yes. Daring? Yah. But all of that just for Finland, and the estimated cost: €818 million.

Finland as a nation does not rank incredibly high on mega watt (MW) capacity, the amount of electricity that they generate by nuclear power, compared to other developed nations with commercial nuclear programs. But the 2,752 MW they did put out in 2012 made up 32% of their total electrical production, which is a fair percentage. So if the Onkalo repository is their answer to dealing with spent fuel waste, what answers will we arrive at for the United States with our 102,136 MW capacity (ranked the highest output in the world in 2012 while making up just 19% of our total electrical output).

source: http://www.spiegel.de/international/europe/spiegel-interview-with-energy-commissioner-oettinger-fukushima-has-made-me-start-to-doubt-a-754888.html

source: Spiegel Online International http://tinyurl.com/nucleargraph

While researching nuclear waste issues in the past I had read suggestions of blasting it into space, burying it deep at sea, and hollowing out mountains with almost equal skepticism, but a three mile long tunnel in the earth built to last 100,000 years has seriously upped the ante on what options are realistically on the table. It may be time to take a trip to the United States’ own controversial repository Yucca Mountain, the outdoor adventure you’re not likely to find in any issue of Backpacker magazine. Roadtrippin’ Nevada, anyone? We can swing through Vegas on the way.