Finland to Have 1st Operational Nuclear Waste Repository; Transparency, Dialogue Key to Gaining Understanding from Residents

Lehtikuva via Reuters / file photo
A copper capsule for spent nuclear fuel is pictured during a test in the Onkalo spent nuclear fuel repository in Eurajoki, Finland, in June 2018.

Selecting the final disposal site for highly radioactive waste is an issue for countries with nuclear power plants, and only a few countries have decided on such sites.

Finland has made the most progress as it decided on a disposal site in 2000 and began construction on the world’s first geological repository in 2016. It is set to become operational in the mid-2020s.

Finland spent more than 30 years before starting construction. The company responsible for the disposal of nuclear waste selected about 100 possible locations. Area surveys were conducted in five municipalities that consented to be a disposal site for nuclear waste, and the municipality that was ready to accept the waste was selected. The company proactively disclosed information to residents and held a series of small gatherings to create dialogue. In the end, many residents are said to have given their approval for the project.

Sweden finalized selecting a disposal site in 2009. The government approved the plan in 2022 with the aim of starting operations in the late 2030s. Similar to Finnish operators, Swedish operators made efforts to gain understanding from residents by visiting local communities during their farming and dairy work breaks, and discussed the project.

In France, a nuclear powerhouse that generates about 70% of its electricity using nuclear power, the government agency responsible for building a repository applied for permission in 2023.

In the United States, the government took the initiative and selected a site in Nevada in 2002. The Energy Department applied to build a repository, but the administration of then U.S. President Barack Obama, who came into office in 2009, suspended the project. The review process still remains halted.

According to Waseda University Prof. Shunji Matsuoka, an expert on geological disposal issues who specializes in environmental economics and policy studies, the acceptance of disposal sites in northern Europe is due in part because of the public’s high level of trust in the government, operators and regulatory authorities.

Referring to the Nuclear Waste Management Organization of Japan, Matsuoka said, “NUMO has also set up a forum to discuss [the issue] with residents, but it is mostly one-sided from NUMO.”

Matsuoka added, “In order to foster understanding and trust regarding the disposal [of nuclear waste] in Japan, which has experienced the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant accident, among other incidents, it is necessary to incorporate knowledge, opinions and case studies from other sources to gain understanding from residents.”