Finland consumes nearly 17,000 units of electric power per capita annually; its share of nuclear electricity is about 28 per cent. Though its nuclear power programme is very modest compared to that of U.S. or U.K. it is far ahead in its universally applauded plans for nuclear waste management.
The general refrain of lay public (often reinforced by antinuclear rhetoric) is that there is no ultimate solution for managing high level nuclear waste. Finland demonstrates that it has in place a popularly accepted technological solution.
Currently, Finland operates four nuclear power reactors with a total installed capacity of 2716 MWe. It produces about 70 tonnes of spent fuel annually. Finland has no plans to reprocess the spent fuel.
Finland started its preliminary preparations for its nuclear waste management shortly before the first reactors started operation 1n 1977-1978. In 1978, the first lot of spent fuel entered the facility for interim storage at Loviisa.
The Nuclear Energy Act 990/1987 passed by its parliament stated that nuclear waste generated in connection with or as a result of the use of nuclear energy in Finland shall be handled, stored and permanently disposed of in Finland.
In 1983, Finland started screening of potential sites for spent fuel disposal. Within the next four years, Finnish scientists started field research in five municipalities for selecting the final disposal site.
In 2000, they chose Olkiluoto. They plan to dispose of spent fuel in an underground geological repository. Posiva, a Finnish company which is entrusted with the job has drilled a 6.5 metre –high, 5 m- wide and 5000m long Okalo tunnel. It has removed over 100,000 cubic metre of rock.
The company successfully located the place where no one would ever be likely to dig a deep hole later for exploiting minerals because the place is not mineral-rich. The idea is to abandon forever, the mostly natural, and partly engineered underground repository after filling it.
After a few decades of interim storage, the levels radioactivity and heat of spent fuel reduce to about 0.1 per cent of the original values.
It is then encapsulated in a cast iron insert which in turn is covered by a 5 cm thick copper canister. Each insert may carry up to 12 fuel bundles.
They will be placed in neatly bored holes a few metre apart in the underground repository. The gaps between each canister and the hole will be filled with bentonite clay, which swells by absorbing water.
This clay provides cushioning to the canister in case of geological movements and ensures that there are no voids through which water can enter and corrode the container.
Finland hopes to start filling the repository by 2012 and completing it by 2120. They can cover the mouth of the tunnel and forget about it.
Most of the radioactivity in the spent fuel is due to fission products.
They have a half life of about 30y. In 100,000 years, the radioactivity remaining in the fuel will be negligible. Finnish scientists proved that 1.5 cm of copper cladding would last over 100,000 years. Evidently, 5 cm of copper cladding will be more than adequate.
During the period, an ice age may come and cover the area under 2-3 km of ice. The pressure on the canister due to ice, tightly gripping bentonite clay and ground water may equal that experienced by it at an ocean depth of 4.5 km. Finns proved that their copper cylinders will withstand a pressure three times that before failing.
Waste management cost is manageable. Finland collects a few percentage of the electricity cost per unit of power to manage the waste and deposits it in an independent National Nuclear Waste Management Fund, controlled and administered by the Ministry of Trade and Industry.
The agency estimates and assesses the liability annually.
Finland's nuclear waste management programme was accepted by people because the Government took them into confidence at every stage.
Finland demonstrates that nuclear waste can be managed safely. This issue need not come in the way of harnessing nuclear power.
Raja Ramannna Fellow, Department of Atomic Energy