RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
A winding tunnel reaching three miles underground is slowly being blasted out of the bedrock of Finland's southwest coast. It's due to become the world's first permanent storage site for highly radioactive waste, the deadly leftovers from nuclear reactors. Despite the concern now about melting glaciers and rising sea levels, the designers of this facility are worried about the next Ice Age.
NPR's Emily Harris reports.
EMILY HARRIS: 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's 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 a million pounds of nuclear waste.
In the dark inside, Timo Seppala says this wide tunnel will eventually branch into scores of smaller ones.
Mr. TIMO SEPPALA (Posiva Oy): It's like a comb. You know, a comb? What you are combing with the hair.
HARRIS: Seppala 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 five yards long, one yard around, weighing 20 tons, and full of highly radioactive spent fuel. The canisters are to be the first of several barriers keeping the dangerous waste in place. Then comes clay and rock.
Mr. SEPPALA: There is bentonite clay surrounding the canister. It functions as a buffer. And then there's bedrock.
HARRIS: No one has done this before. So much is still being researched; the exact structure of the bedrock, how to manufacture the canisters, the design of the truck to bring them with their radioactive loads into the tunnel. Eero Patrakka is Posiva's CEO.
Mr. EERO PATRAKKA (CEO, Posiva Oy): The largest challenge, of course, is that we are doing business that has a time scale of thousands and hundreds of thousands of years.
HARRIS: The site is due to open in 2020 and be full 100 years later. But the waste inside will remain dangerous much longer, so the company must try to design the dump to survive many possible geological changes. 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 the last ice age receded. He's planning for when Finland is again under ice.
Mr. PATRAKKA: We have to consider that there will be a new ice age in the future, and we have to consider what happens when we have three kilometers of ice above the ground, how the bedrock will behave.
HARRIS: 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 convince 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 to the community. Others say years of no accidents built trust. A national law also changed, explicitly forbidding Finland from storing nuclear waste coming in from other countries. Even the anti-nuclear green party pushed for that and supports the storage site. Heidi Hautala chairs the Green Parliamentary Group.
Ms. HEIDI HAUTALA (Chairwoman, Green Parliamentary Group): We don't want to produce more nuclear waste, but our view, and I think this is pretty much what the Finnish people by and large believe, that every country should take care of their own spent fuel and not export it somewhere where it is a burden for other people.
HARRIS: But there are a few people here in the local community, Eurajoki, who still publicly oppose the waste site. Town councilman and farmer Juha Jaakkola, agrees that Finland should take responsibility for its nuclear waste but he wants it put far away from people. His wife, Pirjo Jaakkola, translates his worries about how the barrels below ground might affect the future above.
Ms. PIRJO JAAKKOLA: The future of our people living here, also the next generations. The future of agriculture, they can't do it and look it very safety, of course, and they do their best. But when we think so many hundred and hundred years forward, what happens? We can't be sure.
(Soundbite of machinery)
HARRIS: Back at the underground storage site, a few months ago, 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 it must be so safe future generations don't have to know it's there.
Emily Harris, NPR News, Eurajoki, Finland.