The Swedish Government disregards the opinion of the Environmental Court and approves the repository for spent nuclear fuel

On 27 January 2022, the Swedish government took the decision to approve the planned repository for spent nuclear fuel in Forsmark without the nuclear power industry having been able to show that the copper canisters that are to guarantee safety for at least 100 000 years will work as intended. The Swedish NGO Office for Waste Review (MKG) as well as the member organisations the Swedish Society for Nature Conservation (SSNC), the Swedish Friends of the Earth and the local organisation "Oss" in Östhammar Community regret the decision and considers it irresponsible. The uncertainties that have been highlighted for decades about the chosen method's most important barrier - the copper canister - have not been taken into due account in a serious way. This will probably result in a setback both economically and practically for industry in the future when the uncertainties can no longer be denied.

The Swedish Minister of Climate and Environment Annika Strandhäll (Social Democrat) announced on 27 January 2022 that the government had approved the licence application from the nuclear waste company (SKB) from 2011 to build a repository for spent nuclear fuel at the Forsmark nuclear power plant, i.e., given permissibility according to the Environmental Code and permission under the Nuclear Activities Act. The continued legal process is that the application according to the Environmental Code must now be processed further by the Land and Environmental Court for a decision on a permit with conditions. In parallel the Swedish Radiation Safety Authority (SSM) must review a new safety analysis before a permit is granted to start construction of the repository. The spent nuclear fuel repository system also includes the construction of a copper encapsulation plant in connection to the intermediate storage facility for spent nuclear fuel, Clab, at the Oskarshamn nuclear power plant.

The decision means that warnings from independent and highly regarded corrosion researchers and the government's own advisory scientific body, the Swedish Nuclear Waste Council, that more research is needed to ensure that the copper canister works have not been taken seriously by the government. This means that government decision was made despite uncertainties that are so great that radioactive leaks that affect humans and the environment can occur as early as in before 1 000 years. When the nuclear fuel repository is supposed to isolate the waste for at least 100 000 years.

The protective capacity of the copper canister is the most important feature of the method for a spent nuclear fuel repository chosen by the nuclear power industry. The uncertainties that the copper canister will function as intended in the planned repository have not been accepted by the Land and Environmental Court. In an opinion to the government according to the Environmental Code in January 2018 the court said that the application cannot be approved until it is shown that a number of degrading processes affecting the copper canisters are not a problem for long-term safety.

The regulatory authority SSM has since the summer of 2016 considered that the repository has “prerequisites to meet” the requirements for long-term safety. This is because there are also barriers of clay and rock in the repository system, so it does not matter exactly how the copper capsule functions in the repository environment. This also explains why SSM has not been so interested in following up the reporting of the results from the extensive corrosion in the LOT experiment in the Äspö Hard Rock Laboratory. The regulator SSM’s principal position that the function of the copper canister in in the repository for spent nuclear fuel is not necessary for the long-term safety also means that SSM's approval of the supplement that the nuclear waste company SKB made to the government in the spring of 2019 on canister issues is not surprising. The approval was made even though SSM had access to its own review material from corrosion researchers at KTH who rejected the supplement.

The Swedish Society for Nature Conservation (SSNC) and the Swedish NGO Office for Nuclear Waste Review (MKG), with the backing from opinions of independent scientific experts submitted to the government, is of the understanding that no fundamental new information on corrosions processes has been added by the nuclear waste company SKB in the government review. The supplementary information submitted was only a rehash of previous information and positions. Thus, the requirements of the Land and Environmental Court as defined in the opinion to the government have not been met. This means that the government has made a primarily political decision without regard to significant scientific shortcomings, which is worrying. The safety of the copper canister should have been a priority issue for the government and there was no reason to speed up a decision. Continued operation of the nuclear power plants is only dependent on the existence of an industry research plan for radioactive waste management. The nuclear power industry believes that the spent nuclear fuel can be stored safely in the intermediate storage facility Clab for a hundred years or more.

The Swedish Council for Nuclear Waste has in an opinion to the government in the beginning of December 2021 stated that requirements for continued research regarding the copper canister in a repository environment should be linked to a government decision on permissibility according to the Environmental Code. The council believes that new experiments are needed to study copper corrosion and cast-iron processes under repository conditions. The Minister of Climate and Environment did not mention the council's proposal when she announced the Government's decision, but stated more generally that further research can take place even after the decision. How such research can be carried out in a serious way when both the industry and the regulatory body lack interest in important issues is an obvious problem.

Annika Strandhäll took office as the new Minister of Climate and Environment on 30 November 2021. At the end of August, the government with the former Minister of the Environment and Climate Per Bolund (Green Party) took a separate decision to allow increased capacity in the intermediate storage facility for spent nuclear fuel, Clab, at the Oskarshamn nuclear power plant. Despite the decision, which ensured that there will be sufficient storage capacity so as not to threaten the continued operation of nuclear power, pressure remained on the previous government to take a quick decision on the nuclear fuel repository. The political opposition threatened with a motion of censure against Minister Per Bolund and continued to threaten Minister Annika Strandhäll. This should not have affected such an important decision as the nuclear fuel repository decision that affects so many generations to come. The nuclear fuel repository must be safe for 100,000 years.

The government should have taken more account of independent scientific criticism and the evidentiary requirements of the Environmental Code. As science continues to work independently of political decisions, MKG and its member organisations believe that it is likely that the project will still be stopped in the future. The risk that the money needed to to find a better long-term waste management option will be wasted on the wrong technology is evident.

When it turns out that the project cannot be continued, a focus must be placed on both investigating alternative canister materials and quickly investigating the possibilities of instead using the method deep boreholes with deposition of the spent nuclear fuel at a depth of between 3-5 km. The method can be environmentally safer, gives less risk of intrusion and can also be less costly than storage in mined tunnels.

The news article in Swedish on the MKG web site with links to the decision documents can be found here.

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