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The question of nuclear waste in the UAE

ABU DHABI // It has gone so fast – and so far, so good. It’s already the third anniversary of work starting on the UAE’s first nuclear power plant at Barakah, near the border with Saudi Arabia. And it is still on budget and set to go live in late 2017, ultimately providing a quarter of the Emirates’ energy needs.

But becoming the first new member to the global nuclear power club since the mid-1980s was never going to be straightforward, and the next 18 months will be the toughest so far.

Yet one huge challenge will remain even if the Barakah project is a triumphant success. It is the same one that has faced every member of the club since its first members signed up in the 1950s: what to do with radioactive waste.

Whatever one’s view of the operational safety record of nuclear power, there is no doubting the scale of the waste problem.

Over the decades, the world’s 400-plus power reactors have generated about 270,000 tonnes of spent fuel. Laced with U-235 and other isotopes, it takes years to cool to the point where it can be processed, and another 1,000 years for most of its radioactivity to decay.

Each year another 12,000 tonnes of the stuff is generated, and soon the UAE will join those nations faced with trying to deal with it.

The good news is that the UAE is joining the club at a time when some believe an acceptable solution may be starting to emerge. What’s unclear is whether the UAE will be in a position to exploit it.

Over the decades ideas for dealing with nuclear waste have ranged from cavalier to literally out of this world.

During the 1940s, the United States and Britain began a programme of simply dumping radioactive waste into the ocean – including whole nuclear reactor vessels complete with fuel. Other countries joined the programme, which was only outlawed internationally in 1994.

During the 1970s, the US space agency Nasa looked at the possibility of using rockets to fire the nastiest and most concentrated high-level waste (HLW) into deep space.

This isn’t just a theoretical possibility: many deep-space probes with small plutonium power plants have been successfully launched into space – among them the New Horizons mission that shot past Pluto last week.

Unsurprisingly, the idea crashed and burned in the face of concern about the rockets packed with HLW doing just that.

Since then, many more down-to-earth ideas have been explored, ranging from reprocessing and concentrating HLW to building special nuclear “incinerators”. All have proved economically or technically problematic, and usually both.

As a result, most of the world’s HLW remains sitting in huge water-filled pools or concrete casks, waiting for someone to come up with a better idea.

Now one may finally have emerged.

It’s not especially clever, and it’s been around for years. But it requires a key ingredient so far found in few parts of the world: public trust.

Last month, a conference organised by the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna learnt of the latest progress with the technique, developed by Swedish engineers and known as KBS-3. It involves taking the HLW out of the pools once it’s cooled off, encasing it in metal canisters and putting them in clay-filled tunnels about 500m underground.

To be fair, that somewhat underplays some of the technique’s key features. For a start, the canisters are 25-tonne monsters made from 5cm-thick copper with cast-iron inserts.

The clay is pretty special too: bentonite, which swells and self-seals when exposed to water but also cushions the canisters against any movement.

Not that there’s likely to be much of that, as the tunnels themselves are carved out of solid granite bedrock.

Even so, KBS-3 still sounds like just another “out of sight, out of mind” approach of the sort that generates controversy, protests and delays.

Just ask the US government, which spent half a century trying to set up something similar for its own HLW.

In the 1970s it thought it had identified the perfect site: Yucca Mountain, in the Nevada desert, 150km from Las Vegas. But the plan quickly ran into huge public and political pressure, and ended up being abandoned in 2009.

What makes KBS-3 different is not the technology but where it is being used: Finland.

For over a decade, deep below the Olkiluoto nuclear power plant on the west coast of Finland, a vast access tunnel has been carved out of the granite. These will allow KBS-3 canisters to be taken down into storage once the site becomes operational in 2020.

And there seems little doubt that it will.

In February, Finland’s nuclear regulator backed the project with a safety assessment, and the Finns seem perfectly happy with that. As one of the national nuclear inspectors told Reuters last month: “The population has a high trust in regulators and policymakers.”

Other nations hoping to exploit the Finnish sangfroid and start shipping over their own HLW will be disappointed, however: the nation has banned importation of the stuff.

But that isn’t stopping others from trying to implement the central lesson of the Finnish experience: building trust is both possible and vital.

Sweden is now planning a similar project, and others countries across Europe are eyeing progress with keen interest.

On the face of it, the UAE has the luxury of being able to watch and wait for some time yet. Once operational, the four Barakah reactors will produce about 100 tonnes of spent fuel annually, and it will be years before a decision on its long-term fate is needed.

In reality, however, work on the waste problem has to begin immediately – by redoubling efforts to maintain trust in the UAE’s nascent nuclear programme.

Robert Matthews is Visiting Reader in Science at Aston University, Birmingham

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(via The National)