Geological disposal is accepted internationally as the best management option for Higher Activity Radioactive Waste (HAW).
However, the approach taken and the progress made in delivering a GDF varies from country to country. Here the situation in different nations is explained.
The HADES Underground Research Laboratory was constructed to research the possibility of deep geological disposal in clay. It is managed by Euridice, and is an economic partnership between the Belgian Agency for Radioactive Waste and Enriched Fissile Materials (ONDRAF/NIRAS) and the Belgian Nuclear Research Centre (SCK CEN). HADES is purely a research facility and will never be used for disposal.
In November 2022, a Royal Decree was published as the first regulatory act to formally establish a national policy for the safe and responsible long-term management of high-level and/or long-lived radioactive waste in Belgium. The decision to adopt geological disposal is the first step in a process which will take many decades and will include public debate, with a special focus on engaging with the younger generation.
Canada is currently seeking a site for a deep geological repository as a long-term management solution its spent nuclear fuel.
Nuclear Waste Management Organisation (NWMO) is a not-for-profit organisation established by the nuclear energy generators in Canada under the Nuclear Waste Fuel Act. NWMO is committed to an open, transparent, inclusive staged process to seek a host community.
The site selection process began in May 2010, and there was an initial expression of interest from 22 communities. Following an increasingly intensive process of study and engagement with communities, the number of study areas has reduced to 2: the township of Ignace in north-western Ontario, and the municipality of South Bruce in southern Ontario. A preferred site is expected to be identified in autumn 2024. Construction of the facility will begin in 2033 and the site will become operations in the early 2040s. A report entitled Implementing Adoptive Phased Management 2021 to 2025 sets out the strategic plan to take NWMO from planning and site selection into the implementation phase.
Findings from a series of community studies were published in 2022. These covered topics such as employment and workforce growth, opportunities for business, infrastructure improvements and the construction of a Centre of Expertise which would attract international world class academics.
Site selection and evaluation began in China in 1986. A site at Beishan in Gansu province has been chosen and an underground research laboratory will be built by the China National Nuclear Corporation. Research will be carried out this site until 2040 when the final repository will be built.
SÚRAO is the government administrative body responsible for radioactive waste management in the Czech Republic. It is coordinating the work regarding the development and construction of a deep geological repository for high level waste and spent nuclear fuel, which is expected to open in 2065.
The search for a suitable site for a GDF began in the 1980s shortly after the first nuclear power plant began operation. The 1990s saw an overall evaluation of the country’s geology, which was followed by surface exploration works. Four sites, from a longlist of nine, have now been selected as potential locations for a GDF. Surao will now submit the results of the GDF site assessment to their Board. The Government of the Czech Republic will then issue a resolution on the proposal and local working groups will be established. An undertaking has been given that geological exploratory work will not begin until after the adoption of the proposed Act on the Involvement of Municipalities or after 1st January 2023.
Established under law, Andra is the National Radioactive Waste Management Agency in France, charged with the management of all radioactive waste. Andra is developing a 500 metre deep disposal concept for Higher Level Waste, the outcome of which will be the commissioning of a repository – Cigeo – in Meuse/Haute-Marne by 2025, subject to government approval, and following public debate.
Posiva is responsible for the final disposal of spent nuclear fuel of the nuclear power generators in Finland, who are also the owners of the organisation.
Construction of a geological disposal facility at Olkiluoto is nearing completion and it is expected that the first waste will be emplaced in 2024, following government approval of the operating licence. This was submitted by Posiva in 2021 and the Finnish government is expected to consider it in late 2023. The facility is at a depth of 400-450 metres will take spent nuclear fuel for disposal in copper canisters. A multi-barrier approach is being taken to ensure the waste cannot be released into nature or become accessible to humans.
The site was selected following preliminary screening of the entire country, which was in turn followed by preliminary site investigations. Detailed site investigations and an environmental impact assessment procedure was carried out for four shortlisted sites. All of the sites would have been suitable, but it was considered that local communities were most willing at two of the four, and of those two, Olkiluoto had the largest available area, and a large portion of the spent fuel was already stored there. Government took the final decision in 2001 following agreement from the municipality (which had the right of veto), and the regulator.
BGE (Bundesgesellschaft für Endlagerung) is the German federal company tasked with search for a repository site, and other radioactive waste related projects. The Sub-areas Interim Report identifies 90 areas which have geology suitable for the construction of a repository. These areas will be further critiqued using criteria such as proximity to urban or nature conservation areas. The next step in the siting process is the identification of siting regions (around 10) for surface exploration. Once areas have been identified and surface exploration carried out proposals for underground exploration will be made. Finally, a comparison of sites will be carried out and a conclusion made. The final site selection is not expected to take place before 2031.
In 1993, research began in the open pits of the Mecsek uranium mine to determine whether the rock formation (Bodai clay) would be suitable to host a geological repository. In 2000 it was decided that the site would be suitable and further geological research was carried out from 2004 to 2010. Three exploratory boreholes were dug between 2014 and 2017, and further geological, hydrogeological and geomorphological mapping was undertaken. A final report was submitted in 2017. Between 2019 and 2032 further geological studies will be carried out including a regional seismic survey.
It is understood that India is undertaking research into siting and design for a final disposal solution for HLW and long lived wastes, but no more information is currently available.
The Nuclear Waste Management Organisation of Japan (NUMO) was established in 2000 with the remit to implement geological disposal of Higher Activity Wastes. The Japanese government has carried out a nationwide scientific screening process in order to identify which municipalities would be suitable to host the facility. It will then be an open voluntary process for municipalities to express an interest. A literature survey looking at geological records will take place in those municipalities which express an interest. This will be followed by preliminary site investigations of the geology, which will lead to more detailed investigations of suitable sites including the construction of underground research facilities. NUMO notes that work will only proceed based on respecting local opinions, obtaining stakeholder agreement, and securing government approval.
High level Wastes are currently dry stored in the HABOG interim storage facility, pending a long-term disposal solution. The facility is capable of storing the waste for up to 100 years. Dutch policy for the management of radioactive waste was set out in 1984. It established the choice of geological disposal, and research carried out which concluded in 2001 confirmed the presence of suitable deep underground geology (salt and clay formations) in the Netherlands. The research also recommended that further research be carried out into the retrievability of emplaced wastes in a GDF. The results of subsequent research were published in 2018 which concluded that all Dutch radioactive waste could be stored in deep clay layers. It is anticipated that a geological repository will not be required until 2130. Work continues to develop understanding and a decision on geological disposal will be taken around 2100.
Radioactive waste management in the Netherlands is the responsibility of COVRA.
A national deep geological repository in Nizhnekansky Granite Missif in Krasnoyarsk Terrority was proposed in 2008. Following public hearings, the site was confirmed and construction of the repository approved. NO RAO, the Russian body responsible for radioactive waste management aims to build an underground research laboratory in Nizhnekansky by 2024, and a final decision on the repository is expected by 2025.
In mid-2006, the Spanish government approved plans to develop a national temporary storage site (CTS) for High Level Wastes. It will be designed with a life expectancy of 100 years, though the General Radioactive Waste Plan sets out that it will only be operational for 60 years. Once that is complete, the waste will be removed for subsequent management and the facility dismantled. Following a volunteerism process, the municipality of Villar de Canas in Cuenca has been designated as the site for the construction of the CTS and Associated Technology Centre. Research into geological disposal is on-going.
Enresa, a public, non-profit organisation is responsible for radioactive waste management in Spain.
The search for a site for a geological repository began in 1992. The process was voluntary, with enquiries about participation sent to all municipalities. The first two municipalities who applied were eventually ruled out because the local communities voted against continuation.
Pilot studies were made in a further four areas, and at the same time the Geological Survey of Sweden carried out a national survey which showed that there were potentially suitable sites in most of the country’s municipalities. The site investigations were then narrowed down to two areas: Östhammar and Oskarshamn. These lasted for five years and involved geological, hydrological, ecological and social impact studies. There was strong support from the communities in both municipalities. The final selection fell to Forsmark in the municipality of Östhammar. Preparations are underway at the site for the construction, following the granting of a permit by the Swedish Government. However, this was not the final step in the licensing process and the case will now return to the Swedish Land and Environment Court and Swedish Radiation Safety Authority who will set out detailed conditions on coming activities.
SKB is the organization tasked with developing the GDF.
Under the Swiss Federal Nuclear Energy Act, radioactive waste must be disposed of in a deep geological repository. The site selection process is carried out by NAGRA a national co-operative involving nuclear station operators and federal government. Engagement is being undertaken with local communities as well as the authorities of neighbouring countries, and with wider public and interested organisations.
The area of Noerdlich Laegern has been proposed as the site for the repository. The proposal is for the headworks to be built in the Habestal area in the community of Stadel in Canton Zuerich. The encapsulation plants will be built at the existing Zwilag interim storage facility in Wuerenlingen in Canon Aargau.
The repository will be built in Opalinus clay – the rock is 175 million years old and NAGRA has made detailed investigations into this rock type.
NAGRA will now prepare the general licence applications. The aim is to submit these for scrutiny by the authorities and expert bodies in 2024. Following this the Federal Council and Parliament will make a decision. This decision could include the option of a national referendum on the final decision to go ahead. It will be 30 years before waste will be emplaced in the repository.
United States of America
Since 1977, policy in the US has been to forbid the reprocessing of used fuel and to treat it all as High Level Waste. The government is responsible for final disposal of the waste in a geological repository. A plan for developing a repository at Yucca Mountain was vetoed by the Obama administration. It is unclear what position the Biden administration will take on this issue.
Delays by the federal government in building a repository have meant that utilities could not be relieved of their spent fuel as required by legislation. This has resulted in the awarding of damages which goes toward meeting some of the costs of additional dry cask storage at reactor sites.
A repository for military wastes is located in Carlsbad, New Mexico (the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP)) and began disposal operations in 1999. It is location is an underground salt formation.