Decision time for Sweden's final repository for spent nuclear fuel

by Johan Swahn

On January 23, 2018 the Swedish Radiation Safety Authority (Strålsäkerhetsmyndigheten, SSM) and the Swedish Environmental Court will separately submit their recommendations to the government on the nuclear industry's application to build, operate and close Sweden's final repository for spent nuclear fuel. The government has to give the final decision to proceed with the project but its decision and future decisions by the regulator may be open to legal challenge and appeal up to Sweden's Supreme Courts and possibly to the European Court system.

The license application was submitted in 2011, following a 2009 decision by the Swedish Nuclear Fuel and Waste Management Company (SKB), which is owned by the nuclear utilities, to site the spent fuel repository at the Forsmark nuclear power plant. The plan is encapsulate the spent fuel in copper canisters that will be emplaced in holes lined with bentonite clay in mined tunnels at about 500 metres depth in the granite bedrock. (See the chapter on Sweden and Finland in Managing Spent Fuel from Nuclear Power Reactors: Experience and Lessons from Around the World)

The Radiation Safety Authority is expected to say "yes" to a repository construction permit, while recognizing that there are issues still to be resolved by SKB. The authority believes these issues can likely be dealt with before a repository operating licence is granted, which is a later step in the regulatory decision-making process. One important and contentious issue is whether the long-term integrity of the copper canisters can be guaranteed. The canisters, which are supposed to isolate the spent fuel from the environment for hundreds of thousands of years, are critical for the long-term safety case. A conditional yes from the regulator would give SKB time to deal with this and other concerns while the decision-making process and construction work proceeds. According to SSM, all outstanding issues have to be solved, however, before an operating licence can be given.

It is not as certain whether the Environmental Court will also say yes. In September and October 2017 the Court met to conclude its license review process. According to Sweden's Environmental Act, the Court has at this time to be shown that the repository is safe. During the Court session, it was clear that SKB and academic experts in material sciences held very different views on copper corrosion and canister integrity. This makes it difficult for the court to conclude at this time that the repository has been shown to be safe and so enable it to make a license decision. Unlike the regulator, the Court has no extended decision-making process.

If the Environmental Court says no to the license application, the future of the repository project and of Swedish nuclear energy policy becomes uncertain. The government can in principle overrule the court and point to a go-ahead decision from Radiation Safety Authority as a basis for allowing the repository to proceed. This may depend on how the Court explains its negative decision, however. A government decision to move forward despite the Court also could create problems of public support in the community expected to host the repository.

The government has to ask the opinion of the community of Östhammar, where Forsmark is situated, before taking a decision. The people and politicians in Östhammar are in favour of a repository, and there is a local referendum planned for March 4. A no from the Court could lead to a no from Östhammar. The government could also override a community veto, but this will be even more difficult than going against the Court.

If the Environmental Court says yes to the repository on January 23 it will be a big step forward for the project. It is still unlikely that the government will come to a decision before the spring of 2019, however, as there are parliamentary elections in Sweden in September. Even then, it is unlikely that a construction start could come before 2022.

The upcoming decisions by the regulator and the court will be important also for the Finnish repository programme. In Finland, the regulator has given a construction license, but the Finnish decision-making process is also step-wise. A negative decision in Sweden may lead to new questions and a rethink in Finland.