Where to Store Nuclear Waste: Finland as an Example

Where to Store Nuclear Waste: Finland as an Example

The New York Times published an article this week that discussed Finland’s recently approved plan to store its nuclear waste, and compared it to our own country’s past attempts to devise a storage plan. In Finland, three thousand copper containers of radioactive waste will be buried in a series of tunnels 1,400 feet below the surface on a remote island called Olkiluoto. Although it will take nearly a century to complete, this process is already underway (Fountain 2017). This response to the article examines the specific measures the Finnish took in order to approve a nuclear repository, and the groups involved in the decision. It will also consider the context of nuclear issues in both countries in order to demonstrate how decisions that may seem obvious are in fact much more complex. The Finnish and American nuclear waste issues provide evidence of the importance of localities in federal decision-making. However, even if the U.S. followed a similar process to Finland’s, they would likely still be unsuccessful in approving a nuclear waste plan because of the radical difference in circumstances between each of the countries.

In the U.S. there are over 80,000 spent fuel rods being held on the surface, although there was a previous deadline to open a repository for this waste by 1998. One such attempt to create a repository is the Yucca Mountain Project, though this construction license application was withdrawn under the Obama administration. A major reason that this license was unsuccessful was because of the stakeholders in United States. In both Finland the U.S., powerful stakeholders in the creation of a long-term nuclear waste storage unit are the involved government officials, local residents, the nuclear community, and construction companies. In both countries, the construction company that gets the project has the most positive attitude toward the project, although it is not as influential as some of the other players. For example, in Finland, the company Posiva is estimated to make about $3.9 billion over the course of the project. In the U.S., the years planning Yucca Mountain have already cost more than $13 billion – clearly, there is a lot of money to be gained and jobs to be created (Fountain 2017). Because of this, capable construction companies in Nevada in the U.S. are likely to be as supportive of a Yucca Mountain repository as Posiva was to create its own storage facility. A company’s inextricable involvement with their building project also means they are also close to the issue (Fountain 2017).

On the other hand, in the United States, the stakeholder most opposed to the development of Yucca Mountain is the local community. They have a significant amount of influence because they are by far the most proximate group. Civilian opponents to the repository can bring lawsuits against it, and would have multiple opportunities to testify in hearings. A local population also has significant sway over the actions of their elected officials. As a result, any successful building project in their locality would require essentially require the community’s consent. The article explains that most of Nevada’s congressional delegates do not support the creation of Yucca Mountain, as there is the potential that the project could have disastrous effects on nearby residents. For example, unlike the Finnish storage facility, Yucca Mountain’s site sits above the water table. This increases the chance that if there is a leak, nuclear waste might enter the drinking water supply (Fountain 2017).

One of the article’s greatest concerns is pointing out the differences between in the policy making processes between the two countries. Unlike in the U.S., where Congress unilaterally decided that Yucca Mountain was a potential waste site, the Olkiluoto project managers consulted local communities first, and were very transparent in their processes. Recognizing early that being opaque with their process would cause issues, they set an agenda of openness. They invited the community to visit their offices and answered their concerns. This approach worked well because the community was already familiar with nuclear issues, as multiple reactors are on the island. As a result, the community’s fears were assuaged. Posiva was also able to soften up a critical group of stakeholders by enlightening them about the opportunities for property tax revenue and jobs. In the end, the Olkiluoto community was so supportive of the repository that it asked Posiva to not present the government with any other options in order to ensure their location was selected (Fountain, 2017).

The fact that the Olkiluoto community was familiar with nuclear issues is far from the only difference between them and those living near Yucca Mountain. The Finnish, as a whole, have a much higher level of satisfaction in their government than Americans, and as result trust them more. Environmental issues specifically are a lot less controversial in Finland. Both of these factors played a role in the immediate resistance that Yucca Mountain faced within the U.S. When the project was first announced, it was immediately viewed as a burden, made clear by the senior politicians who fought hard to keep the repository out of their states (Gosline, 2013). There is also a greater precedent for fear in the U.S., which has had 46 accidents at nuclear plants (NRC, 2017), as opposed to Finland, which has only had one mining issue (Ando, 2012). With this historical context, it becomes more understandable why Congressional leaders avoided reaching out to the local communities, from which they most certainly would have received a negative response.

Nuclear waste in the United States is a serious issue that is only becoming more difficult to deal with as the waste itself piles up. Furthermore, there is no simple solution to the problem, and even those solutions that worked in another country are unlikely to work in the U.S. context.

 

SOURCES

Ando, Ritsuko. 2012. “Finnish Mine Struggles to Fix Leak, High Uranium Found,” Reuters, 9 November, 2012.

Fountain, Henry. 2017. “On Nuclear Waste, Finland Shows U.S. How It Can Be Done,” New York Times, 9 June, 2017.

Gosline, Jeanie E. 2013. “The Problem with Yucca Mountain.” http://stateenergyreport.com/2013/05/21/the-problem-with-yucca-mountain/ (March 10, 2018).

NRC. 2017. “Leaks and Spills at U.S. Commercial Nuclear Power Plants.” https://www.nrc.gov/docs/ML1703/ML17030A025.pdf (January, 2017).

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