Moving forward with a DGR
As the amount of spent fuel grows, the need for safer disposal solutions, like deep geological disposal, increases, but demonstrating competence is critical.
Of the 21 countries with significant nuclear power activities with several reactors and spent fuel management policies, 5 countries – Canada, Finland, France, Sweden, and Switzerland – are the most advanced in moving forward with deep geological disposal in the next decades. For all these countries, when it comes to establishing a deep geological repository (DGR) timeline, the demonstration of technical and operational competence and public acceptance is critical for countries to move forward to the licensing phase.
Decades of research have demonstrated that deep geological disposal is the most effective method for removing highly radioactive waste from human contact for hundreds of thousands of years as it decays. DGRs can take different forms but all emphasize the need for safe and secure containment of the most hazardous forms of nuclear waste.
The status of spent fuel disposal
Spent Nuclear Fuel (SNF) around the world is kept in wet or dry storage in a country’s central interim storage or in on-site storage at nuclear reactors. Current spent fuel storage systems on the surface can operate for between 50 and 100 years.
But as the volume of fuel grows, current storage facilities will soon reach their capacity. This increases the need to develop new facilities to handle storage and permanent disposal of nuclear waste. Read more about spent nuclear fuel disposal.
Technical Competence: What does it take?
Underground research labs can help support the case for permanent disposal of spent nuclear fuel and other radioactive waste.
Canada, Finland, France, Sweden, and Switzerland are countries most advanced in DGR development. All five are operating (or have operated) underground research laboratories (URLs) to support their approaches to the permanent disposal of spent nuclear fuel (SNF) and other high-level waste (HLW). URLs are used for technology development and demonstration, data collection, training, and public confidence building in a subsurface environment. URLs are not unique to nuclear energy research – for example the world’s deepest URL, the China Jinping Underground Research Laboratory (2,400m or 7,900ft) is used to study neutrinos and dark matter – but URLs can advance the safety case for a prospective repository and the technology readiness of a repository program. In some cases, for example in Germany, a URL may ultimately become the site of a repository for low level radioactive wastes. For HLW and SNF, France’s Bure URL will not house HLW, while Finland’s Onkalo URL is an integral part of the soon-to-be operational Olkiluoto DGR.
As of 2021, there are a total of 12 operating URLs in 9 countries (Belgium, Czech Republic, Finland, France, Germany, Japan, South Korea, Sweden, and Switzerland), of which 3 URLs (in Finland, France, and Germany) are site-specific, meaning they are developed at sites that are under consideration for the future disposal facility’s location.1United States, U.S. Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board, Filling the Gaps: The Critical Role of Underground Research Laboratories in the U.S. Department of Energy Geological Disposal Research and Development Program, (2020), 10. https://www.nwtrb.gov/docs/default-source/reports/nwtrb-url-report.pdf?sfvrsn=9 Several countries have previously operated URLs, for example, the Whiteshell facility in Canada which operated for nearly 20 years. China is currently constructing a site-specific URL in Gansu Province. In several URLs located in Europe and Asia, international collaboration activities now play an important role in each participating country’s geologic disposal research.
The technical innovation of new facilities, such DGRs, pose a challenge to a country's nuclear safeguards in accordance with the IAEA.
In addition to ensuring technical safety when SNF is placed underground, it’s also important to prevent the SNF and the plutonium it contains from being diverted towards weapons use.
Measures controlling the spread of nuclear weapons are aimed at the early detection of the misuse of technology and materials. These measures, known as nuclear safeguards, have evolved over time and involve an international system of monitoring, verification, and inspection activities, of nuclear material as its moves through the nuclear fuel cycle. How countries implement nuclear safeguards depends on their agreements with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in accordance with the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT).
DGRs require technical innovation and new approaches to safeguards given traditional international verification measures, such as physical inspection of nuclear material, cannot be applied once the material is encapsulated and placed underground. Other challenges involve the multigenerational lifespans of DGRs, constant changes to their design and quantities of material over those lifespans. The IAEA also considers SNF in a repository to be practically retrievable even after the facility’s closure, meaning safeguards apply in perpetuity (so long as the agreement with the IAEA exists). These features will require innovation in remote monitoring and other safeguards techniques – like seismic sensors, 3-D laser measurements, and ground penetrating radar – to verify the material is not diverted over long timeframes. In addition, the potential for developing multinational geological repositories, where multiple countries’ SNF is disposed of together in the same facility, may require new and more complex safeguards architecture among participants. Other novel facilities, such as advanced, or emerging reactors, will change how SNF is managed and how international safeguards can be applied. It is therefore pivotal that countries advancing towards DGRs engage with the IAEA in accordance with their safeguards agreements to keep pace with the safeguards demands of such facilities.
Above: The Bure Underground Research Laboratory (URL) and site of the future Deep Geological Respository (DGR) in the Grand Est region of eastern France. Courtesy of Andra
URLs are research facilities constructed below ground to investigate waste disposal concepts and potential geological repository sites. They are pivotal steps within the development of deep geological repositories.
Fuel that is removed from reactors is considered used or “spent.” This spent fuel contains fissile materials such as plutonium which is considered a direct-use material for nuclear weapons.
Radioactive waste is classified differently in different countries but generally relates to the waste’s level of radioactivity. High-level waste (HLW) can include wastes from the reprocessing, or treatment and separation, of used nuclear fuel components. Long lived intermediate-level waste (LL-ILW) includes the cladding from used fuel while low-level waste (LLW) includes contaminated objects such as gloves or cleaning rags.
The Role of Independent Nuclear Waste Management Organizations
These organizations may demonstrate operational competence and build public trust
Waste management organizations play a vital role in conveying the country’s repository plans to the public, particularly with communities that may be willing to host future DGRs. Some countries, such as Canada, Japan, Switzerland, and France have public organizations that have different degrees of autonomy from political processes and are responsible for the safe geological disposal of radioactive waste. They have governing boards and/or advisory bodies which are supported by various committees. These organizations usually fall under the supervision of one ministry or several ministries. In the case of France, the Ministries for Energy, Research, and the Environment provide oversight to Andra, the French national radioactive waste management agency. In Canada, the Minister of Natural Resources Canada has oversight of the Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO).
Some countries have national legislation that stipulates nuclear power companies are wholly responsible for the treatment, storage, costs, and disposal of their SNF. In these cases, organizations are established by nuclear power companies to handle the final disposal of SNF generated by their facilities. In Finland, the two power companies owning reactors formed a joint venture company, Posiva Oy, in 1995 to prepare and implement SNF geological disposal in Finland. In Sweden, nuclear power companies established SKB, the Swedish Nuclear Fuel and Waste Management Company, in the 1970s to manage and dispose of all radioactive waste. These companies are responsible for site selection, applications for permits, construction, management, and costs of DGRs. Finnish and Swedish nuclear regulators and other relevant ministries monitor and verify these companies in line with national legislation.
Above: Courtesy of Posiva
Public Acceptance: It Takes a Village
Long-term public approval of nuclear waste disposal is an important element for a facility's operational success.
Concerns about spent nuclear fuel and radioactive waste have remained throughout the nuclear age. Given the generational timelines of spent fuel management, the role of the public, particularly that of local communities, in the long-term disposal of spent fuel is substantial. SNF management and disposal is a particularly thorny issue, but the idea of pursuing and incorporating public acceptance into plans is not unique to the nuclear industry. Beginning in the mining industry in the 1990s, entities gaining a so-called “social license to operate” (SLO) has become acknowledged as a key element of operational success.2Sarah Bice and Kieren Moffat, “Social license to operate and impact assessment,” Impact Assessment and Project Appraisal 32, no. 4 (2014), 257. https://doi.org/10.1080/14615517.2014.950122 SLO is the local community’s sustained acceptance of a body’s activities.
The research suggests that trust, supported by the perceived credibility and legitimacy of the active body – in the case of SNF disposal, an implementing organization, a spent fuel producer/owner, or a government entity – is imperative for gaining a SLO.3Kieren Moffat and Airong Zhang, “The paths to social licence to operate: An integrative model explaining community acceptance of mining,” Resources Policy 39, (2014), 62. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.resourpol.2013.11.003; Richard Parsons, Justine Lacey, Kieren Moffat, “Maintaining Legitimacy of a Contested Practice: How the Minerals Industry Understands its ‘Social Licence to Operate’,” Resources Policy 41 (2014), 84, 85. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.resourpol.2014.04.002 A SLO is beneficial for all parties as it serves as a “peer review” of the process,4Seth Hoedl, “A Social License for Nuclear Technologies: Human Perspectives on the Development and Use of Nuclear Energy,” in Nuclear Non-Proliferation in International Law – Volume IV, eds. Black-Branch, J. and Fleck, D., (The Hague: T. H. M. Asser Press, 2019), 25. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-94-6265-267-5_2 specifically how engaging stakeholders to achieve acceptance indicates that the project has surpassed minimum regulatory or legal requirements.5David Rooney, Joan Leach, and Peta Ashworth, “Doing the Social in Social License,” Social Epistemology 28, no. 3-4 (2014), 211. https://doi.org/10.1080/02691728.2014.922644 Good-faith engagement with communities at the beginning and throughout the development of a DGR is key to maintaining public acceptance. Some countries, such as Finland and Sweden, have found success in communicating trust and safety to communities already closely involved with the nuclear fuel cycle.
In the 5 countries with the most advanced DGR plans, community engagement is a long-term and dedicated effort that has continued for decades based on the understanding that public acceptance is critical for the success of such facilities. The public has been involved in many parts of the repository disposal plans, especially those using community-driven, consent-based siting processes.
Above: Courtesy of Andra
Case Studies & Timelines
How six countries have pursued geological repositories
Finland’s Nuclear Energy Act mandates that a government “Decision-in-Principle” to approve a DGR requires public input from local communities through written and oral opinions shared in response to initial applicant reports and at public hearings. Posiva Oy, the Finnish company implementing and developing the DGR, organized public hearings in all potential host municipalities in 1997 as part of the Decision-in-Principle process. In 2000 the Municipality Council of Eurajoki voted 20 for, and 7 against constructing a DGR at the Olkiluoto nuclear plant site, a decision which was followed by a favorable government Decision-in-Principle late that year and Parliamentary ratification in 2001. Construction of the DGR is ongoing and operation is expected to begin in the 2020s.
An amendment to the Nuclear Energy Act in 1994 prohibits the export (and import) of nuclear waste, requiring utilities to focus on domestic solutions for permanent disposal of spent nuclear fuel.
The two power companies (TVO and Fortum) owning reactors at Olkiluoto and Loviisa form Posiva Oy, a joint venture company to prepare and implement the geological disposal of their spent fuel in Finland.
Underground repository for low- and intermediate-level waste begins operation at Loviisa. Public hearings are also conducted in all potential SNF DGR host municipalities as part of the Decision-in-Principle process.
In January 2000, the Municipality Council of Eurajoki votes 20 for, 7 against, the construction of a final disposal facility at Olkiluoto. A favorable Decision by the government is issued in December 2000 to dispose of a maximum of 4,000 metric tons of uranium in spent fuel from the four operating nuclear power plants in the country at the time.
Posiva begins construction of ONKALO, an underground research laboratory (URL) at Olkiluoto, comprised of an access tunnel with a depth of 455 meters, a personnel shaft and two ventilation shafts.
Canada’s approach to DGR implementation had a rocky start with respect to public acceptance when its geological disposal concept, which began development in 1980, was found in 1998 to be technically safe but lacking in demonstrated public support.
After the Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO) was founded under the Nuclear Fuel Waste Act in 2002, it initiated a three-year study of management approaches involving a nation-wide dialogue with citizens to identify a preferred management approach. After three years of discussion, Adaptive Phased Management (APM) emerged as the approach that would best meet the priorities and objectives of citizens. A key component of APM in Canada is a site selection process based on consent-based siting. From 2010 to 2012, 22 communities expressed interest in being involved in the DGR process. As of August 2021, 2 sites were still under consideration for DGR siting. Since the establishment of NWMO, engagement with communities, including potential hosts, interested organizations, and indigenous, First Nations, and Métis groups has been a pivotal part of the DGR process. NWMO anticipates selecting a site in 2023.
In Sweden, after identifying that the geology generally supported an underground disposal facility, SKB began a voluntary approach to site selection in 1992. Public hearings are not legally mandated for a DGR development process, but SKB incorporated hearings into early discussions with candidate municipalities.6Swedish Nuclear Power Inspectorate, “Design and Evaluation of Public Hearings for Swedish Site Selection: A Report from the RISCOM II Project,” Kjell Andersson et al., (2003), 2. https://inis.iaea.org/collection/NCLCollectionStore/_Public/42/022/42022510.pdf
Ultimately SKB focused on municipalities that already hosted nuclear facilities. After discussion, Östhammar and Oskarshamn municipalities agreed to proceed with feasibility studies, and SKB selected Forsmark in Östhammar for the DGR site in 2009.
Similar to the Finnish approach, municipal approval was needed for the DGR application. In late 2020, the Östhammar Municipal Council agreed to host the repository. Local approval of the sites has been required at various stages of the process and will continue to be required as SKB pursues construction permitting, potentially allowing construction to begin in the 2020s.
The Land and Environmental Court (MMD) conducts a series of hearings and finds that the DGR application is largely ready for approval but requests more technical investigations of disposal canisters.
France has a policy of fuel reprocessing, so its DGR will contain high-level waste resulting from reprocessing rather than spent fuel. France initiated research into disposal and disposal facility siting in the 1980s, but this process received significant public opposition.7Conversation with French official, Nov 18, 2020.
In 1991 the Loi Bataille set out a more structured research basis for long-term waste management, requiring a 15-year study of various options.
In 1992 a volunteer site selection process for the URL began, resulting in the identification of 30 potential sites the following year. A public debate in 2005 regarding the 15-year research period results helped to determine that deep geological disposal was the best option. A second debate in 2013 on developing a high-level waste DGR (Industrial Centre for Geological Disposal, or Cigéo) resulted in the addition of a pilot phase prior to operation and the establishment of an Ethics and Society Committee for the project.8France, Andra, “A Center for More Than a Century,” accessed Aug 24, 2021. https://international.andra.fr/projects/cigeo/center-more-century
As the National Radioactive Waste Management Agency (Andra) has further pursued URL and DGR development, local council consultation in priority areas has been key throughout the process. Andra expects to submit its construction license in the early 2020s, with approval expected in the 2030s.
Andra is made an independent organization under the 1991 Loi Bataille legislation which provides a mandate for radioactive waste management research into the options of actinide transmutation, long-term storage, or geological disposal.
The research at URL is completed and independently reviewed. The French safety authority in France, l’Autorité de Sûreté Nucléaire, concludes that geological disposal is the safest option in the long term. Public debate helps to inform that conclusion.
The public utility file (déclaration d'utilité publique, DUP) stage begins, which provides a comprehensive view of all infrastructure and utilities involved in the project and represents the first major step towards licensing.
Switzerland’s process involves communities as consultative bodies rather than authorities able to veto siting.
Since 2008, public hearings and discussions have been held as part of a method of “regional participation,” in line with the National Cooperative for the Disposal of Radioactive Waste’s (Nagra) 3-stage process to undergo site selection and licensing for a DGR for spent fuel and high-level waste.9United Kingdom, Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, “Geological Disposal: Overview of International Siting Processes,” (2013), 26. https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/456820/Overview_of_international_siting_processes_September_2013.pdf; Switzerland, Nagra, “Site Selection,” accessed Aug 24, 2021. https://www.nagra.ch/en/siteselection.htm
Regions were encouraged to provide details by 2021 on their particular needs if they should be selected as the final site.10Switzerland, Nagra, “Cooperation With the Siting Regions,” accessed Aug 24, 2021. https://www.nagra.ch/en/approach.htm Nagra anticipates final site selection by 2022 and will work with the host region to submit a general license application by 2024.
Mont Terri Rock Underground Research Laboratory is commissioned to carry out a wide range of geoscientific investigations, including seismic surveys and deep boreholes, regional studies, geological syntheses and investigations.
High-level waste (HLW) is defined as spent fuel and vitrified waste from reprocessing in Art. 51 Nuclear Energy Ordinance. Nagra submits proof of waste management for a deep HLW geological repository in the Opalinus clay of the Zurich Weinland region.
Following a comprehensive review and a positive evaluation by the federal authorities and international experts, the Federal Council approves Nagra’s proof of waste management demonstrating the feasibility of disposal on June 2006.
In April 2008, the Swiss Federal Office of Energy (SFOE) publishes the Sectoral Plan for Deep Geological Repositories outlining 3 stage procedure to select a DGR site. Public hearings and discussion begin to be incorporated into a "regional participation" method as part of the procedure.
Although South Korea’s 2016 HLW management plan is still in its initial stages, South Korea has successfully constructed and begun operating a DGR for low and intermediate level waste which offers lessons for others. The siting process could not have happened without public acceptance. In the 1980s and early 1990s, initial efforts to select a LILW DGR site without robust public involvement led to local opposition and even a riot. After making more concerted efforts to reach out to the public and promising incentives to the local community, the LILW site was finalized at Wolsung in Gyeongju with 90% voter approval.11Stimson Center, “Exploring the Wolsung LILW Disposal Center in South Korea,” Cindy Vestergaard and Trinh Le, Aug 7, 2019, accessed Sept 10, 2021. https://www.stimson.org/2019/exploring-wolsung-lilw-disposal-center-south-korea/ Public involvement has led to rigorous standards being adopted at the LILW repository. Similar standards can be expected to be a priority for the public for a future repository for spent fuel or high-level waste.
A Lack of Public Involvement
DGR projects are likely to fail without public engagement, such as with Yucca Mountain.
Some countries have struggled to gain public support for their DGR plans, in part because they lack robust community involvement in the planning process. The United States, for example, has not had a community, consent-based approach incorporated into its DGR planning, and its experience with Yucca Mountain demonstrates how a lack of community acceptance can lead a DGR project to stall. The 1982 Nuclear Waste Policy Act (NWPA) included the option for a State or Tribe to veto a site decision, but that veto could be (and was) overridden by Congress. Many difficulties plagued the site selection and development process, but one of the most crucial was the Department of Energy’s (DOE) insufficient communication with the public. Where other countries have engaged with communities and have invited public input early in the process, public outreach in the United States was conducted primarily through unidirectional information sharing rather than dialogue. The result was that when the NWPA was amended in 1987 to limit study to Yucca Mountain only, there was little public trust and support for DOE’s efforts from Nevadans, both the people and their national representatives. While the closest counties still supported the project, there was widespread opposition further away and the project stalled. In 2012, the Obama administration’s Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future recommended, among other points, a new DGR development approach based on consent-based siting. The Yucca Mountain project remains stalled with no new congressional appropriations planned for FY2022. At the same time, the U.S. does continue to operate its Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico, a repository for defense-related transuranic waste which has operated since 1999.
There are other countries that have indicated interest in pursuing a DGR that have not yet provided evidence of extensive public involvement in the process. Notably, there is little information about public acceptance elements of China’s project to construct a DGR in the Beishan region of Gansu Province. In this case, there may also be a geographical and demographic dimension to the approval process, as the planned site for a DGR sits in an isolated region of the country with an average population of fewer than one person per thousand square kilometers.12This figure determined by overlaying population density map from Minmin Li et al., “Study on Population Distribution Pattern at the County Level of China,” sustainability 10, no. 10 (2018), 5. https://doi.org/10.3390/su10103598 onto Google Earth’s map of China to confirm that the Beishan region falls within the <1 person per 1000 sq km zone. There is a comparative dearth of information about the Chinese project, making it difficult to derive any trends, but it is possible that this disparity is also reflective of a difference in governance models, whether democratic or authoritarian, in developing DGRs.
Above: The underground Exploratory Studies Facility at Yucca Mountain in Nevada built by the Department of Energy to determine whether the location was suitable as a deep geological nuclear waste repository. Courtesy of the Department of Energy.
Early efforts to demonstrate technical, operational, and social feasibility is important for DGR progress.
Among the 21 countries studied as part of Stimson’s Back-End to the Future project, DGR progress has no obvious relationship to the amount of spent fuel in inventory, the percentage of the national energy mix that is nuclear, or the type of power reactors in a country. The experiences of the countries making significant progress on their DGRs does suggest that early efforts to demonstrate both technical and social feasibility are the cornerstones of progress towards geological disposal.
Product header photo: The deep geological repository at Olkiluoto for Finland’s spent fuel will be the world’s first SNF DGR. Courtesy of Posiva