Concerns Linger for 2020 Nuclear Dump Opening

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The entrance to the storage site. i

The entrance to what's expected to be the world's first permanent storage site for highly radioactive nuclear waste appears unassuming. After the site is full, the door will be sealed and, eventually, left unmarked. Emily Harris, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Emily Harris, NPR
The entrance to the storage site.

The entrance to what's expected to be the world's first permanent storage site for highly radioactive nuclear waste appears unassuming. After the site is full, the door will be sealed and, eventually, left unmarked.

Emily Harris, NPR
Seppala of Posiva Oy explains the planned tunnels. i

Timo Seppälä of Posiva Oy, the company building Finland's nuclear waste storage site, shows a graphic of the planned tunnels. Emily Harris, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Emily Harris, NPR
Seppala of Posiva Oy explains the planned tunnels.

Timo Seppälä of Posiva Oy, the company building Finland's nuclear waste storage site, shows a graphic of the planned tunnels.

Emily Harris, NPR

Learn more about Posiva Oy's role in managing the world's first, long-term nuclear waste storage site, expected to open in 2020.

Construction of site. i

While the nuclear waste dump is being constructed, two new nuclear power plants are going up on the same site. When completed, they are expected to be the largest in the world in terms of output of electricity. Emily Harris, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Emily Harris, NPR
Construction of site.

While the nuclear waste dump is being constructed, two new nuclear power plants are going up on the same site. When completed, they are expected to be the largest in the world in terms of output of electricity.

Emily Harris, NPR

The entrance to Finland's nuclear waste storage site looks somehow familiar, like the entrance to any underground parking lot at a bank or a mall.

It is located just around a curve in a sloping road. There are concrete retaining walls on both sides, and construction is still going on. But there will be no hourly tickets here – only permanent parking for about one million pounds of nuclear waste. In the dark inside, Timo Seppälä says this wide tunnel will eventually branch into scores of smaller ones.

"It's like a comb," he says.

The Set-Up

Seppälä is with Posiva Oy, a company created by Finland's nuclear energy providers to deal with the problem of waste. He says each small tunnel — the teeth of that comb — will house dozens of huge iron and copper canisters. Each canister is five yards long, one yard around and weighs 20 tons, not to mention it is full of highly radioactive-spent fuel. The canisters are to be the first of several barriers keeping the dangerous waste in place.

"There is bentonite clay surrounding the canister," Seppälä says. "It functions as a buffer."

No one has done this before and much is still being researched – the exact structure of the bedrock, how to manufacture the canisters, the design of the truck to bring them in, etc.

"The largest challenge is, of course, that we are doing a business that has a time scale of thousands and hundreds of thousands of years," says Eero Patrakka, Posiva's CEO.

The site is due to open in 2020 and will likely be full 100 years later. Nevertheless, the waste inside will remain dangerous much longer, so the company must try to design a dump that can survive many possible geological changes.

Icy Concerns

Patrakka says he's not worried about rising sea levels from global warming swamping the site because Finland is actually still rising out of the ocean — in a sense, bouncing back after the crushing weight of glaciers from when the last ice age receded. He's planning for when Finland is again under ice.

"We have to consider there will be a new ice age in the future and we have to consider what happens when we have 3 kilometers of ice above the ground and how the bedrock will behave," Patrakka says.

Local officials approved the first nuclear reactor here on the condition that no high-level waste stays in the area. That was in 1973.

It took the nuclear industry 20 years to persuade the community to change that rule, and more time for this dump to be approved. Some people credit the change of heart to the tax payments the nuclear reactor brought the community. Others say years of no accidents built trust.

A national law also changed, explicitly forbidding Finland from storing nuclear waste from other countries. Even the anti-nuclear Green party pushed for the law, and supports the storage site.

"We don't want to produce more nuclear waste," says Heidi Hautala, who chairs the Green parliamentary group. "But our view — and I think this is pretty much what the Finnish people by and large believe — is that every country should take care of their own spent fuel, and not export it somewhere where it is burdenful for other people."

A Blurry Outlook

But there are a few here in the local community of Eurajoki who still publicly oppose the waste site. Town councilman and farmer Juha Jaakkola agrees Finland should take responsibility for its nuclear waste, but he wants it put far away from people. His wife, Pirjo Jaakkola, also worries about how the barrels below ground might affect the future above.

They say the waste dump will certainly affect the future of the people living in the area and of the community's agricultural economy.

Even though they both believe the company building the storage site is very conscientious about safety, they say no one can know what will happen to the area over the next tens of thousands of years. And that, they say, means even the best safety measures could fail.

A few months ago at the underground storage site, workers put up a steel frame for a door to the tunnel entrance. Once the canisters of spent uranium and plutonium are squirreled away deep in the bedrock, the door is expected to be sealed and, eventually, left unmarked.

The company says the site must be so safe, future generations don't even have to know it's there.

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