On Thursday, the Swedish government gave the go-ahead for the construction of a storage facility to keep the country’s spent nuclear fuel safe for the next 100,000 years.
What to do with nuclear waste has been a major headache since the world’s first nuclear power plant came into operation in the 1950s and 1960s. The International Atomic Energy Agency estimates that there are around 370,000 tonnes of highly radioactive, spent nuclear fuel in temporary storage around the world. “Our generation must take responsibility for nuclear waste. This is the result of 40 years of research and it will be safe for 100,000 years,” Environment Minister Annika Strandhall told reporters at a press conference.
“The solution for the final storage of spent nuclear fuel – through it we ensure that we can use our current nuclear power as part of the transition to becoming the world’s first fossil-free, developed nation.” Sweden’s nuclear power plants have been producing around 8,000 tonnes of highly radioactive waste – including spent nuclear fuel – since they began operating in the 1970s.
The plan is to bury the waste – and the fuel that the reactors will use until they are shut down sometime in the 2040s – 500 meters into the bedrock near Forsmark’s nuclear power plant. After about 70 years, when the tunnels are full, they will be packed with bentonite clay to keep out water and the plant will be sealed.
Sweden’s decision comes against the background of a renewed interest in nuclear power, which is seen by many countries as an important transitional stage to put an end to dependence on fossil fuels and pave the way for electrification of society. For example, the European Union plans to classify some new nuclear power plants as “green”.
Swedes voted in 1980 to phase out nuclear power, but attitudes have changed. Sweden’s largest political parties made an agreement on nuclear power in 2016 and agreed that six existing reactors can continue to operate and that up to 10 new reactors can be built on existing sites.
However, the cost of new facilities is generally considered to make them uneconomical unless a future government agrees to generous subsidies.
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