South Korea will select a site for an underground storage facility to permanently dispose used nuclear fuel, or high-level radioactive waste, by 2028 and complete the construction of the facility by 2053, according to the first roadmap for the project released by the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy on 25 May.

"A further delay in building the facility will put a drag on future generations, considering the saturation level of interim storage units located in the nuclear power complexes nationwide, ” Chae Hee-bong, the ministry’s energy policy director, told a press briefing.

Korea has 24 nuclear power units which produce more than 700t of used nuclear fuel annually. According to ministry data, the first used fuel storage unit to become full will be at the Wolsong NPP in Gyeongju, North Gyeongsang Province, in 2019.

Korea has no other choice than storage as it is strictly banned from reprocessing under a 1973 treaty with the USA. The government has been trying to find a site for the wastes since 1983, but has failed nine times because of local protests. The government said the country is running out of storage units.

To minimize public resistance in the course of a site selection, the ministry will adopt an open competition among geologically qualified sites. It will launch an independent committee to lead the site selection next year, following an approval by the National Assembly on the roadmap in the latter part of this year. The roadmap will be updated in five years embracing changing external conditions, the ministry added.

The ministry’s ‘road map’ is based on recommendations from the Public Engagement Commission, an independent advisory group set up in 2013. The ministry will hold a public hearing next month, followed by an inter-agency meeting chaired by the prime minister in July.

Park Dong-il, director of the nuclear power environment division at the ministry said: "It will take about 12 years to select the location and we will hear what they want to receive from the government and make deals during this period," said. He added that the government will decide what kind of benefits or incentives to give to areas that want to build storage facilities.

According to the ministry, it will take the government about eight years to select the site and get feedback from local residents, and another four years to investigate the geological chracteristics of the site. The project was expected to cost some KRW53,000bn ($44.8bn) in 2013 but a government official said it is now looking at an estimated cost of KRW63,000bn.

Meanwhile, the Korean government opened its first low-and intermediate-level radioactive waste facility in Gyeongju, North Gyeongsang, last year. The government wanted to build a high-level facility there but faced opposition from residents.