All countries, whether pursuing reprocessing or not, will eventually have the need for a geological disposal facility. This was one of the main conclusions from America’s Blue Ribbon Commission, which recommends that the United States “undertake an integrated nuclear waste management programme that leads to the timely development of one or more permanent deep geological facilities for the safe disposal of spent fuel and high-level nuclear waste.”

Deep geological disposal involves sequestering long-lived waste deep underground within protective containers. Such emplacement provides geological and engineered barriers to the biosphere.

Over a dozen countries are currently following the deep disposal route, however only a few foresee an operating repository prior to 2030. Sweden and Finland—two of the countries where plans are the most advanced—have reached the stage of submitting construction licence applications.

In March 2011, SKB applied to the Swedish Radiation Safety Authority (SSM) and the Environmental Court in Stockholm for permission to build a spent fuel repository at Forsmark. The court is expected to decide whether or not to accept the application by the end of 2012. Following that, the application review process will take another three to four years. Construction and commissioning is expected 2015-2025 with full-scale operation from around 2027. SKB also plans to build a spent fuel encapsulation plant adjacent to the Clab interim storage facility at Oskarshamn, to start up around the same time.

Finland plans for the ultimate disposal of spent fuel from Loviisa and Olkiluoto in a 12,000 tonne-capacity, 420-metre-deep geological repository at Olkilutoto. The repository was designed to take spent fuel from four units at Olkiluoto and the two operating units at Loviisa, plus a third unit. Posiva aims to submit a construction licence for the facility in 2012, and it is slated to being operation in 2020. The cost of the repository was estimated at EUR 3.3 billion in 2009, based on a 5500 tonne inventory of used fuel.

In February 2012, the government urged nuclear waste producers TVO and Fortum to cooperate with Fennovoima, which plans to build Finland’s sixth nuclear plant in Pyhäjoki, eastern Finland. Posiva says it has no need and, for safety reasons, no possibility to expand the repository to facilitate the disposal of spent fuel from Fennovoima’s proposed Hanhiviki nuclear power plant. However, the government can order cooperation. By 2016, Fennovoima is required to present its own environmental impact assessment (EIA) on a final depository for spent fuel or an agreement to manage its waste jointly with the other operators.

France’s Andra is working towards reversible disposal in a deep geological repository, dubbed Cigéo, starting up from 2025. The disposal facilities are to be developed on the basis of the 500 m deep geological laboratory in a clay formation at Bure in eastern France. In early 2012, Andra awarded a six-year contract for the industrial design of Cigéo. It expects to file a licence application for the facility in 2015. Also by 2015, Andra is tasked with building or modifying storage facilities for H/ILW to meet future requirements. Andra is also required, before the end of 2012, to present various scenarios for all the intermediate- and high-level waste packages intended for deep disposal.

In Canada, the site selection process for a deep geological repository is currently underway. Potential host communities have until September 2012 to step forward, according to Canada’s Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO). So far 15 communities are participating in the process. NWMO says that the underground repository itself will occupy a subsurface area in suitable host rock of around 2.5 km by 1.5 km (375 hectares/930 acres) at a depth of about 500 m. It is expected to cost some $17.9 billion (in 2010; a new estimate is expected in 2012) to manage Canada’s used nuclear fuel. This includes the costs for reactor site storage; construction and operation of a central interim facility and a deep geological repository, as well as transport of used fuel to the repository. These estimates are based on a repository capacity of 3.6 million fuel bundles, an in-service date of 2035 and closure in 2160.

Like the USA, which abandoned the Yucca Mountain project, Germany suspended its work towards a deep geological repository at Gorleben (Lower Saxony) for most of this decade. Exploration of the Gorleben salt dome recommenced in October 2010, after a 10-year moratorium. It is expected that the exploration activities will end around 2020, with a final statement on the site’s suitability.

The siting process for a HLW repository in Japan consists of three steps: selection of preliminary investigation areas, selection of detailed investigation areas, and selection of a repository construction site. In December 2002, Japan’s Nuclear Waste Management Organization of Japan began an open solicitation for municipalities to investigate the areas as potential candidate sites for a high-level waste repository. High-level waste that has been returned to Japan from reprocessing abroad is currently stored at Rokkasho. In January 2007, the mayor of Toyo-cho in Kochi Prefecture applied, but the application was later withdrawn. In March 2007, Minamiosumi-cho in Kagoshima Prefecture invited NUMO to explain the programme, but due to opposition decided not to proceed. Japan aims to select a site by 2020.

The UK plans to store its high-level, intermediate-level and long-lived low-level waste in a common deep geological repository. The Nuclear Decommissioning Authority has set up a Radioactive Waste Management Directorate (RWMD) to develop plans for the Geological Disposal Facility (GDF), which is expected to cost around £12 billion undiscounted from conception, through operation from about 2040, to closure in 2100. The government has invited communities to volunteer to host the GDF; three expressions of interest have been received so far, all in Cumbria. The next steps are to undertake a four-year geological study; surface research lasting ten years; and finally a 15-year period of underground research, construction and commissioning. In these steps the NDA will seek to find an 11-year saving to enable operation from 2029.

India’s BARC is currently researching deep disposal and has concluded that the most promising formation for a repository there is in granitic rock. That has been the focus of the institute’s research programme, which involves in situ experiments, site selection, characterization and lab investigations.

In Belgium, a report on the feasibility of geological disposal of HLW in Boom Clays was presented by ONDRAF in 2001. In September 2011, Belgian organizations ONDRAF/NIRAS adopted a waste plan for the long-term management of high-level waste. The plan proposes disposal in a unique repository located at depth in a poorly-indurated clay formation in Belgium. (Boom Clay has been under investigation since 1973 and, since 1984, in an underground rock laboratory at Mol).

In the Czech Republic, approval for a final disposal site is expected around 2015, with repository construction starting around 2030.

Hungary is currently planning to build an underground research laboratory in the Boda Claystone Formation in the western part of the Mecsek Mountains, which has been identified as potentially suitable for geological disposal. Siting work began in 2010.

Russia began work on the creation of a deep geological repository programme in the late 1990s. A site for an underground research laboratory was chosen in Nizhnekanskiy, around 4km from Zheleznogorsk and currently siting work is underway. Preliminary studies suggest that the region has properties favourable for geological disposal. The design of the laboratory foresees chambers for the disposal of containers with low-heat-generating long-lived HLW and ILW and wells for the disposal of vitrified HLW canisters with high heat. Disposal of waste is expected in the depth range 450-475 m below the surface.

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This article was first published in the June 2012 issue of Nuclear Engineering International

Related Articles
Disposal plans (part 1: spent fuel)
Disposal plans (part 2: reprocessing)
Disposal plans (part 4: low- and intermediate-level waste)

More information

This report was compiled from dozens of different sources, including national radioactive waste management organizations, power plant operators and industry reports. For more information see:
Radioactive waste management programmes in OECD/NEA member countries:
Reports from The IAEA Joint Convention Safety of Spent Fuel Management and on the Safety of Radioactive Waste Management (2011): 
The IAEA Nuclear Waste Management Database:
Report from the International Panel on Fissile Materials: ‘Managing Spent Fuel from Nuclear Power Reactors: Experience and Lessons from Around the World’ (2011)
Other sources include: Blue Ribbon Commission, Nuclear Regulatory Commission (USA); the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (UK), Posiva (Finland), Nagra (Switzerland), Andra (France), SKB (Sweden), NWMO and OPG (Canada), Atomic Energy Commission (Taiwan); Enresa (Spain); Nesca (South Africa); Rosatom (Russia); Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission (Pakistan); Nuclear Energy & Radioactive Waste Management Agency (Romania), the Federal Office for Radiation Protection (Germany); JNFL (Japan); State Nuclear Regulatory Inspectorate (Ukraine) and the World Nuclear Association.