Conference report

Real world waste

15 March 2007

This year’s Waste Management Symposium discussed the implications of a global nuclear partnership – including the possibility of international repositories and political interference in the supply chain. By Corrina Thomson

Nuclear waste is an issue that only the most complacent would ignore, and the Waste Management 2007 (WM07) meeting, organised by WM Symposia and held on 25 February - 1 March in Tucson, Arizona, highlighted what could happen at the back end of the much vaunted global nuclear partnership – the controversial notion of international repositories, which have been described as both practical and unethical, depending on your point of view.

One of the questions raised by the session Global partnership: spent fuel management from the user’s perspective is the extent to which fuel suppliers should accept the responsibility for the waste produced by their fuel. The issue of a minor fuel user’s ability to build their own repository was also discussed.

Claes Lindberg, president of SKB International Consultants pointed out that Sweden is totally focused on disposing of its own fuel within its borders and there is no official government position on international repositories. Emphasising that it was his personal opinion, Lindberg said: “What are the user considerations of the global partnership? Quite a few – technological challenges and asking what would such a system be like from a technical point if view. Will there be a market of suppliers for such a system?

“Would such a scheme be sensitive to political control or interference, for example, from the supplier side? Will there be assurances of final disposal of fuel that is taken back by the supplier?”

Lindberg also pointed out that there is a big question mark over how the licensing and siting of such a suite of nuclear facilities would occur. He said: “Is the supplier’s process foreseeable in terms of licensing? As I understand it, such a system would require several facilities that would need to be licensed. We all know from the nuclear business that siting and licensing are difficult in most countries, including the supply countries.”

He went on to ask what might happen to fuel users if the supply failed. This is a very pertinent issue in the current political climate of individual countries pushing for secure energy supplies.

Lindberg discussed the notion that it is uneconomical for countries with smaller nuclear programmes to have their own repositories or stores. He said: “What is the situation for countries that have very small quantities of nuclear fuel? Of course, interim storage is commercially available already and there are several ways to do it. Regarding geological disposal, the investment in a repository and the encapsulation plant is quite substantial.”

However, he pointed out that Finland has achieved reductions in cost compared to Sweden because it needs smaller capacity facilities, due to its more modest nuclear programme. “A smaller encapsulation plant and repository will cost less. So it’s not totally out of the question to think of final disposal of spent fuel even in small countries, especially if they have a long-term nuclear programme with a few reactors, and even more so if there is new build.”

Lindberg felt that customers in a global nuclear market would need to be sure that the technologies concerned were proven, there was a credible implementation plan and the services were contractually competitive.

“I’m not advocating against the idea of a global partnership, it has many good aspects and I know the reason why it has come about, but there are some very important practical considerations to bear in mind,” he concluded.

Issues affecting waste disposal in smaller countries continued to play a significant role in the debate, with Taiwan’s experience showing that having a big neighbour does not always bring advantages.

Shih-Hai Li, professor at the National Tsing Hua University in Taiwan, pointed out the difficulties Taiwan has dealing with waste in the long-term are because the host rock is not suitable due to numerous earthquakes. He said: “I have been to Finland and Sweden several times; every time I visit their countries I’m so impressed because they are doing very well. When I go back to Taiwan, I’m so depressed – because the problem is not that we are not working hard, the problem is that there is no host rock that is suitable to be selected due to there being so many earthquakes.

“After almost 30 years of efforts we have still failed to find a repository for low-level waste because the problems of the rock are so difficult to overcome,” he said.

Li said the short-term nature of the political system in Taiwan does not help planning a nuclear programme and continued: “The global partnership would require a very long-term programme and how to continue that in the long-term is maybe a big issue.”

Li also pointed out that small countries and their bigger counterparts would not necessarily agree on the suitability of repository location, giving the example of Taiwan’s small granite islands close to the Chinese coastline.

“A global partnership would create public acceptance issues because people in a small country have the idea that the big country which sold nuclear technology to a small country should take spent fuel back. In my view, if we had a global partnership this public acceptance issue would arise in smaller countries.”

Following a question about regional partnerships on waste disposal, Abel González, senior adviser with the Argentinian Nuclear Regulatory Authority, agreed that the idea of regional cooperation is a good one. He added: “I have the feeling that we have to start with something we need very urgently, which is an international partnership on safety.”

González went on to stress that a “global partnership” by definition is not one or a few countries choosing who is allowed into the partnership. “A partnership is a partnership of equals, it is not somebody saying ‘okay, let’s have a partnership of you and you’ – that is not a partnership of equals,” he said.

Enrique Biurrun, head of the International Cooperation Department at German firm DBE Technology, felt that pursuing an unethical repository process would be very dangerous for the industry.

Biurrun said: “It is very important that what we do is perceived as an ethically correct activity. I don’t think that finding an island somewhere to use as a repository would be perceived as an ethically sound solution, and would be perceived as taking the waste away from a country, dumping it somewhere and leaving it to the next generation to find a way to clean it up. Doing this would be an absolute killer for our industry.”

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