IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi, during an official visit to Sweden, travelled to the Äspö Hard Rock Laboratory, where research is underway 500 metres below ground. The laboratory is located on an island north of the town of Oskarshamn near the Oskarshamn NPP.

At the laboratory, the Swedish Nuclear Fuel & Waste Management Company (SKB – Svensk Kärnbränsförhantering) has for decades been carrying out cutting-edge geological research in preparation for the planned construction of a final repository. The repository will be located near the Forsmark NPP and will the used fuel generated by Sweden’s nuclear industry over the past half century. Following the decommissioning of several reactors in 2017-2020, including Ringhals 1&2, Sweden now has three operating NPPs with a total of six reactors (Forsmark 1-3, Oskarshamn 3, and Ringhals 3&4). Together they produce around 30% of Sweden’s electricity.

The Swedish government has approved the repository plan and SKB – owned by NPP operators – aims for the facility to be operational in the 2030s. In neighbouring Finland, the nuclear fuel repository at Onkalo is expected begin operating in the next few years. Both will use the KBS-3 method largely developed at the Äspö Hard Rock Laboratory and the nearby Canister Laboratory, which Grossi also visited.

The KBS-3 method is based on three protective barriers: copper canisters, bentonite clay and bedrock. Once the final repository stands ready, the spent fuel – currently stored in an interim facility in Oskarshamn – will be encapsulated in copper canisters and transported by sea to Forsmark, where they will be placed in tunnels half a kilometre underground.

“More countries around the world are planning to introduce nuclear power or – like Sweden – expand existing programmes to fight climate change and ensure energy security,” said Grossi. “In this context, it is very important that people know that the spent fuel and radioactive waste the nuclear sector is generating is managed in a sustainable and responsible way.” He added: “Countries like Sweden and Finland – with decades of nuclear power experience – are leading the way on how to do it, also ensuring that the local communities hosting the sites are engaged, informed and in favour of these important projects.”

Opinion polls cited by SKB show that a large majority in the municipalities that will host the final repository and the associated encapsulation plant support the construction of these facilities.

“Few industries are investing as much time and resources in taking care of its waste as the nuclear sector. Engaging with local stakeholders is key in this context. Without local backing, it would be very difficult to pursue the final disposal of spent nuclear fuel. Sweden is showing it is possible to gain the confidence of the local communities, which is very important,” Grossi noted.

He said the work carried out at the two laboratories was a “magnet” for international interest and indicated that the IAEA would step up its cooperation with the facilities so that other countries could benefit from their expertise and experience. “I’m very impressed and encouraged by what I saw here,” he said.

Image: IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi at the Äspö Hard Rock Laboratory in Sweden (courtesy of IAEA)