More than 400m below the Finnish forests is emerging the world’s first geological tomb for nuclear waste.
Within two years, lethal radioactive uranium from the bomber will begin arriving in large quantities. They will be buried in the tunnels dug into the bedrock.
The UK is one of the countries that are looking at plans to construct their own geological disposal plants. This will allow them to safely dispose of the 260,000 tonnes worth of radioactive waste, which has been accumulated since the advent of nuclear power in 1950s.
Sky News had rare access to the site, Onkalo in Finnish, which is called “cavity”. It is located on the country’s southwest coast, next to three nuclear reactors.
After the sabotage to the Nord Stream gas pipeline, security was tight. There was a strict no filming rule above ground.
We were then taken down the 5km access road through the bedrock. Our ears popped!
Further tunnels are built at the bottom. Five tunnels have been built so far. However, more could be constructed over the next decades to stretch to 40 miles.
Sanna Mustonen was our guide, a geologist who is also the senior project manager at Posiva, which runs the facility.
She stated that the bedrock was formed nearly two billion years ago, and that it has remained unchanged ever since.
She said that the rock, as in the entire area of Finland is very stable.
“We have old rocks. “We don’t have continental plate nearby so there are no earthquakes, seismicity or other such phenomena.”
Security must be provided
Finland, like other countries, stores nuclear fuel above ground within shielded bunkers. It is currently looking for a long-term solution.
Mika Pohjonen (Managing Director of Posiva) said that it would be irresponsible for such hazardous waste to be left where it could get into the wrong hands.
Sky News interviewed him: “If we look back at history 300 years ago, how many wars were there in Europe?
“On the surface, interim storage requires active measures from humans. The building must be heated, and the spent fuel must cool. There must also be security around it.
“If you look back a generation, you can’t really see that this kind of arrangement would be safe enough.”
There are many solutions to the nuclear industry’s waste problem. These include launching it into deepspace, burying them in an ocean trench, and dropping them into an Earth’s crust fissure.
They have been dismissed as impossible, too expensive, or risky for the environment.
“Safe for one million Years”
Posiva will instead encase spent nuclear fuel within double-layered metal cannisters, which will fit into the holes in the tunnel floor.
They will be wrapped in bentonite, an absorbent substance used in cat litter, to keep them dry.
To backfill the tunnels with bentonite, more concrete will be used.
It will be sealed and removed from the ground when it is filled with 3,250 cannisters.
Mr Pohjonen stated, “It will remain safe for one million more years.”
“There may be no humans anymore because there will be ice age or [this area] underwater in that time, but this is to keep it out the biosphere.”
Dummy cannisters have been buried in bentonite, and are surrounded by sensors.
Scientists have warned that water could corrode metal and make it radioactive, then rise to the surface over the millennia.
Posiva claims that the multiple barriers keep water and waste out. Even if there were a leak in the worst-case scenario, modeling shows that radioactivity would have decomposed so quickly that any water would no longer be a danger to human life.
Other countries have closely followed Finland’s progress. Sweden is now building its own deep-geological disposal site. France, Switzerland, and the UK are all further behind.
A shortlist of possible locations in Cumbria or Lincolnshire has been compiled.
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Bruce Cairns was chief policy advisor at the UK’s Nuclear Waste Services and was also looking at Onkalo.
As the country commissions a new generation reactor, he said that responsible and permanent disposal of waste is crucial.
“The UK has 70 years worth of waste that’s been accumulated through energy production, defense and industrial processes.
It won’t go away unless we do something about it. This must be managed responsibly. Not only for now, but also for the long-term.
Engagement with the local community is key to Finland’s success.
Nearest settlement is Eurajoki which is approximately 10 miles away.
Locally, the existing nuclear reactors were already a major employer. The area was chosen from a shortlist and the local authority voted unanimously in favor.
Vesa Lakaniemi is the mayor of the town. She stated that “we have had nuclear power in this area for 40 years.”
“People are more knowledgeable about nuclear and [final] waste disposal than those who live in areas without a nuclear power station.”
“Trust has grown over the past four decades.”