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IAEA Director General Grossi Sees “Impressive” Work in Sweden on Disposal of Spent Nuclear Fuel Deep Underground


IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi descended deep underground in coastal Sweden this week to study the Nordic nation’s advanced preparations for the safe and secure disposal of its spent nuclear fuel, saying they demonstrated the availability of technical solutions for managing such used radioactive material at a time of growing global interest in nuclear energy.

On the third day and final day of his official visit to Sweden, Director General Grossi travelled to the country’s south-east yesterday to visit the Äspö Hard Rock Laboratory 500 metres below ground, located on an island north of the town of Oskarshamn and near one of its nuclear power plants. Sweden has six reactors generating nearly a third of its electricity but is planning to build more.

At the laboratory, the Swedish Nuclear Fuel and Waste Management Company (SKB) has for decades been carrying out cutting-edge geological research in realistic conditions for the planned construction – at the Forsmark site further north – of a final repository for thousands of tonnes of spent fuel generated by Sweden’s nuclear industry over the past half century.

The Swedish government has approved the plan and SKB – owned by the nuclear plant operators – aims for the facility to be operational in the 2030s. In neighbouring Finland, the nuclear fuel repository at Onkalo is expected begin operating in the next few years. Both will use the KBS-3 method largely developed at the Äspö Hard Rock Laboratory and the nearby Canister Laboratory, which Director General Grossi also visited yesterday.

The method is based on three protective barriers: copper canisters, bentonite clay and bedrock. Once the final repository stands ready, the spent fuel – currently stored in an interim facility in Oskarshamn – will be encapsulated in copper canisters and transported by sea to Forsmark, where they will be placed in tunnels half a kilometre underground.

“More countries around the world are planning to introduce nuclear power or – like Sweden – expand existing programmes to fight climate change and ensure energy security. In this context, it is very important that people know that the spent fuel and radioactive waste the nuclear sector is generating is managed in a sustainable and responsible way,” Director General Grossi said.

“Countries like Sweden and Finland – with decades of nuclear power experience – are leading the way on how to do it, also ensuring that the local communities hosting the sites are engaged, informed and in favour of these important projects,” Director General Grossi said.

Opinion polls cited by SKB show that a large majority in the municipalities that will host the final repository and the associated encapsulation plant support the construction of these facilities.

“Few industries are investing as much time and resources in taking care of its waste as the nuclear sector. Engaging with local stakeholders is key in this context. Without local backing, it would be very difficult to pursue the final disposal of spent nuclear fuel. Sweden is showing it is possible to gain the confidence of the local communities, which is very important,” he said.

Director General Grossi said the work carried out at the two laboratories was a “magnet” for international interest and indicated that the IAEA would step up its cooperation with the facilities so that other countries could benefit from their expertise and experience.

“I’m very impressed and encouraged by what I saw here,” he said.

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