Sweden - Plutonium Investigation n°14/15

The History of Sweden's Waste Management Strategy

   The current complex but coherent nuclear waste management strategy in Sweden has taken a tortuous road to reach what it is today. Some critics of the nuclear program, such as the national people's movement against nuclear power and weapons, Folkkampaijen mot kärnkraft och kärnvapen (FMKK), have even argued that military motives delayed the serious recognition of the waste problem for two decades. The key matter today is whether Sweden will define its spent fuel and already reprocessed plutonium as part of its waste management responsibility, or whether it will pursue a strategy that defines plutonium separated out from spent fuel as an energy stock to be used in MOX fuel.
   In the late 1960s, Sweden was planning to build its own reprocessing plant as part of its initial strategy of an indigenous nuclear fuel cycle. The favored location was near SamŚs, but this was abandoned in 1970 when the municipality used its right of veto to develop the plant, in the first Swedish public protest against nuclear energy.

    Sweden thereafter turned to using foreign reprocessing plants in France and the UK to take the spent fuel discharged from the six reactors which were under construction by the early 1970s.

   Two events in the early 1970s had a significant impact on the course of the nuclear debate that led to Sweden's waste management strategy: in 1972 Stockholm hosted the first United Nations Environment Conference; and in 1973 the first global oil crisis. In the midst of the oil crisis in 1973, the Swedish parliament passed a resolution that called for a moratorium on further nuclear construction until the full waste management implications had been thoroughly examined. This set off a political controversy that was the most extreme crisis of governance in Sweden's history, and led to the fall of the Social Democratic government, which had been in power since 1932, the longest continued period of any democratically elected party in Europe.

   Part of the process set off by the 1973 Riksdag moratorium was to create a review committee, AKA-Utredningen, which was charged with evaluating strategies for the handling of high level nuclear waste, including spent fuel. Whilst the review committee was still deliberating, the Social Democrats pushed through legislation in 1975 the Energy Act that gave the go ahead for an expanded reactor program aiming for 13 reactors to be operating by 1985. A year later the Social democrats lost power to the anti-nuclear Center Party, which established the so-called "Stipulation Act" (Villkorslangen) in 1977. This Act embodied a compromise, that stipulated the restricted conditions under which power companies would be permitted to operate reactors. It put the long term fate of spent fuel arisings at the center of the bargain. The Act stated that power utilities would only be granted an operating license if they had established a contract for the reprocessing of spent fuel, and could demonstrate how and where the final disposal of high activity waste would be handled; and could further demonstrate how unreprocessed spent fuel would be stored safely.

   To put these stipulations into effect the nuclear industry created a nuclear fuel safety project, KBS (Kärnbränslesäkerhet), which was built on the earlier AKA review committee. The Project produced its five volume report, KBS-1, at the end of 1977, dealing with the handling of spent fuel and the vitrified high activity reprocessing waste.

   Uniquely KBS-1 which had taken some 400 scientists to prepare, was then further evaluated by 24 foreign organisations and 25 national organisations, as Sweden established an open decision-making culture matched nowhere else except in the United States. Only three endorsed it: the International Atomic Energy Agency, plus German and Finnish geologists.

   Amongst the recommendations in KBS-1 were that plutonium separated from spent fuel in reprocessing should be deemed to be a valuable fuel resource and should be returned as MOX or sold to the reprocessing country, and recycled in breeder reactor fuel. (Small quantities of plutonium had already been recycled in experimental MOX fuel and burned in Swedish reactors by this point). A contract had already been signed with the French reprocessing company, COGEMA, to handle Swedish spent fuel, which was controversial as France had refused at this time to sign up to the NPT. Another contract with BNFL at Sellafield in the UK had been signed by OKG as early as 1969 for the reprocessing of about 140 tonnes of spent fuel.

   The Prime Minister's acceptance of the KBS-1 provisions not only angered the now strong anti-nuclear factions, but also his own Center Party's members. The dispute led to his resignation, and the governmental coalition with the Liberal Party dissolving. A Liberal minority administration took over. For the second time in two years Sweden had lost a government over the increasingly controversial nuclear energy issue.

   But the KBS process continued, with a second report, KBS-2, released in September 1978, setting out detailed plans for the direct disposal of spent fuel without reprocessing, with the innovative aspect being the proposed use of copper canisters to encapsulate irradiated fuel rods for around 40 years while the short-lived isotopes decayed. This proposal led to the decision to build the CLAB (Centralt mellanlager för använt bränsle) interim storage facility, opened in April 1986 at a site near the Oskarshamn reactors. All Swedish radioactive waste programs have beeen subject to review by IAEA expert panels since 1978.

   The KBS proposals were endorsed by the government in June 1979. Then, following another election in September 1979, a second three-party government led by the Center Party again took power. It had already been agreed by all five main parties in Sweden that a national referendum would have to be held on the future of nuclear power in the country before the 1979 election. So the debate continued up to the vote on 23 March 1980, almost a year to the day after the serious nuclear accident at Three Mile Island in the United States. The first anniversary played a part in the people's perception of the importance of the decision to be taken.

   The referendum was - as suited the Swedish decision-making approach - a complicated affair, offering nominally three choices to the people. In short, the two options advocating completion of the reactor construction program outweighed the single option to phase out the currently operating program within 10 years by 58 % to 38.6 %. Despite its apparently supportive result for nuclear power, in fact the referendum spelled the beginning of the end for the nuclear program in Sweden, as within a few months the Riksdag passed legislation to phase out the existing reactors by the end of their projected operational lives, calculated as by the year 2010 for the newest reactors. The referendum profoundly altered the nuclear industry's expansion plans. It also led to the acceleration of the development of alternatives to reprocessing. In 1981 another Act was passed in Parliament on the "Financing of the future costs for spent fuel", giving responsibility for the payment of the costs for managing radioactive wastes to the power companies. Two years later the final report of the KBS process, KBS-3 on the Final Storage of Spent Fuel, was published in May 1983. Its 450 pages were supported by 140 background reports and references to a further 250 technical articles. It is regarded as the Ôreference' plan for dealing with spent fuel in repository built in deep bedrock. The €spö hard rock research laboratory developed in 1990 near CLAB at a projected cost of $ 235 million - and since 1993 part of a collaborative arrangement with Canada, Finland, France, Japan UK and USA - as the main disposal option deriving from KBS-3, is expected to produce results by the end of 2000 to allow political decisions for the final steps on deep disposal to be taken.

   In 1984 another Act on Nuclear Activities (see box) consolidated the strategy, which, because of the then determined length of reactor operation up to the final phase out in 2010, allowed an accurate calculation of the amount of spent fuel that will have to be dealt with by the plan. A quantity of 7,800 tonnes of spent fuel was estimated by SKB at the time. However as pointed out earlier this fixed close down date has been superceded. This change of policy no longer means that an accurate calculation can be made of the total final quantity of spent fuel arisings from the operation of the commercial reactor program, which adds extra uncertainty about the size of final repository that will be required for emplacement of the fuel.

   On 12 December 1985, the new Act led to the repealing of the 1977 Stipulation Act, and with its demise came the removal of the requirement on five reactors - Barsebäck-2, Ringhals-2 & 3 and Forsmark-1 & 2 - to reprocess their fuel. This led to new pressure to extend the storage capacity of the CLAB, which when designed in 1979 was originally planned to cope with 3,000 tonnes of spent fuel; the capacity has been extended to 8,000 tonnes. Despite nuclear opponents welcoming the withdrawal from reprocessing commitments, they have expressed safety concerns over CLAB, arguing that the interim store might be abandoned by future generations, with the concomitant consequences if essential maintenance is not kept up. Decay heat released would destabilise the atmosphere, critics fear, and the oxidation of the stricken fuel would lead to rapid degradation and to an environmental catastrophe. Another criticism of the CLAB has been the worry that over time the reactor grade plutonium would change to weapons useable Pu-239, because the Pu-240 decays faster than the Pu-239, described by critics as the Ôripening of plutonium'.

   Criticisms of the site search for the final disposal repository for spent fuel, SFL, have emerged over the past few years from a number of communities which perceive themselves threatened by the prospects of such a disposal facility being constructed in their area. In 1995 small communities such as Storuman and closeby Malaa in Swedish Lapland opposed efforts by the Swedish nuclear fuel and waste management company, SKB, (Svensk Kärnbränslehantering AB) to investigate the geologic suitability of their locality for the SFL. Many other communities opposed earlier efforts by SKB to investigate their regions during an earlier site suitability search carried out from the very south to the extreme north over 1977-1983.

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