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The great problem to overcome, when talking about nuclear energy, is with the treatment and storing of nuclear waste. None of the countries of the world who belong to the still restricted – but speedily enlarging – nuclear energy club has been able, yet, to pull off a permanent disposal site.
Apart from technological issues, one of the most important steps is how to convince local communities to host nuclear waste sites on their doorways. Such stuff is widely thought of as being far too dangerous for anyone to accept it in their own backyard.
There is at least an example, though, of communities who have stepped up, eager to take their country’s waste.
We are in Sweden, a country which, like many others, has had its share of political meltdowns over nuclear power. Everybody remebers clearly the protests staged in the early 1980s when the Swedish nuclear industry simply decided where to begin testing for a possible geologic disposal site. Those difficult – for the nuclear energy industry – days seem to have gone by forever, though: today, instead of deflecting protesters, the nuclear industry shuttles visitors by the busloads for guided tours of facilities.
We are at the Aspo Hard Rock Laboratory, a test area for used nuclear fuel. In this working lab in eastern Sweden, a private nuclear waste company tests methods for permanently storing used fuel. It plans to encase the fuel rods in copper capsules, then bury them 1,500 feet down in bedrock where it is supposed to sit for the next 100,000 years. More than 1,100 feet below the surface, exotic machinery and copper tubes wide enough to fit two men fill an underground cavern carved from crystalline bedrock.
He place has recently become a sort of tourist attraction: as many as 10,000 people per year visit it and have a first-hand touch of what dealing with nuclear wastes means.
So how did that happen? How did Sweden manage to turn nuclear waste management from a toxic topic to a field trip? The secret is participation and transparency.
Initially, company officials spent a lot of time just having coffee with people, explaining their plans. Then they began focusing on towns with stable geology, but also places where the people were used to living near nuclear power plants.
That worked out. Oskarshamn was one of two communities in eastern Sweden that stepped forward after nuclear waste officials asked for volunteers willing to let them start geologic testing. This spring, Swedish nuclear officials applied for a licensing application to build a geologic vault in the municipality of Osthammar, about a two-hour drive north of Stockholm. If they get it, the facility could open in 2025.
The community will see some financial benefits: Besides new jobs and infrastructure, Osthammar negotiated a deal with the company to receive approximately $80 million for long-term economic development if the repository is approved.
There are still a lot of questions about the proposal, and there are critics who feel the community has fallen for a very sophisticated PR campaign. Ultimately, the community still has the power: Once regulators have completed their review, three or four years from now, Osthammar gets to either veto the proposal or say, "Yes, in our backyard."