Europe’s Literal Race to the Bottom for a Carbon Neutral Future

 

In July 2022, the European Parliament approved nuclear energy as “green” in its continued effort to make European Union climate neutral by 2050.[1] Not incidentally, the approval came as Europe was facing the harsh reality of its gross energy dependence on volatile Russia that invaded Ukraine a few months earlier.[2]  Ultimately, the approval was hailed as a major victory for the nuclear industry, which had been emphasizing three main selling points for nuclear energy: (1) zero emissions, (2) a relatively small land footprint, and (3) minimal waste.[3] However, it was the third point, minimal waste, that almost caused the nuclear demise because there was a strong opposition mounted by some member countries raising concerns about environmental consequences of spent nuclear fuel storage and subsequently accusing the European Union of greenwashing. [4]  

            So where exactly do EU member states store their nuclear waste? Everybody understands that spent nuclear fuel is radioactive, but how many people realize that some of the isotopes of the spent fuel stay radioactive for thousands years, such as Plutonium-239 which has a half-life of 24,000 years?[5]

            According to the World Nuclear Waste Report, there are over 60,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel spread across the EU.[6]  Despite this vast amount of radioactive waste, Europe, just like the rest of the world, does not have permanent storage for its spent nuclear fuel.[7]  In fact, not a single EU member state has a “definitive” spent fuel policy.[8]  Instead, EU member states have interim storage locations that allow the hazardous material to be stored for 50-100 hundred years.[9]

            Typically, spent radioactive fuel is subject to laws of national legislation as well as international conventions; however, the EU’s framework is supplemented by the 2011/70/Euratom directive.[10]  The Directive was enacted as an attempt to supplement the Euratom Treaty to provide guidelines to member states in regard to the management of radioactive material.[11]  The Directive reestablished that each member state is individually responsible for its own spent nuclear fuel and it also repeats the objective of the European Council Directive 2009/71/Euratom that emphasized the need for each member country to develop safe plans for storage and disposal facilities. [12]

            Most countries that have nuclear power plants use some form of interim storage, where  radioactive material is submerged into spent fuel pools at the plant to cool.[13]  The cooling period lasts several years, typically under five years, during which time the radioactive material decays.[14]  Subsequently, the cool spent fuel can be recycled and used again because the fuel still contains up to 96% reusable material.[15]  Unfortunately, only five EU member states so far actually reprocess their spent fuel.[16]  Experts agree that interim storage, the so called ‘stop-gap solutions’, is not only unsustainable, but interim storage is also dangerous because of the potential for release after a natural disaster and being vulnerable to terrorist attacks. [17]

            It is undisputed that as the European Union braces for an increase in nuclear power production, which in turn will produce more ‘new’ radioactive waste, the old waste is not going away and there is an urgent need for states to come up with a permanent solution. 

Finland is set to become the first country in the world that is opening a permanent repository (“Onkalo”) where the Finnish spent nuclear fuel will be buried for millennia; 100,000 years to be exact.[18]  It is in this network of sixty to seventy kilometers of tunnels, approximately 1,300 feet below ground caverns cut from a granite bedrock, where the fuel, after going through the reprocessing cycle, will be buried.[19] The repository will contain 3,250 corrosion-resistant canisters of radioactive fuel, totaling 6,500 tons of uranium.[20] Once filled, the access tunnel will be filled with concrete and the entrance itself will be sealed.[21] Onkalo is dubbed the “game changer” by the International Atomic Energy Agency because it is the first licensed deep disposal site for high level nuclear waste.[22] An important point must be stressed at this juncture; Onkalo is located on an island off the west coast of Finland.[23] This area was chosen because of the unique geological features of stable bedrock and bentonite clay, and the area is sparsely populated.[24]  

What about the rest of densely populated EU states?  Unsurprisingly, attempts at building any form of spent nuclear fuel depository have been met with fierce local opposition; take Bure in France as an example.[25] Various groups mobilized farmers, neighbors, trade unions, local unions and others to boycott the construction of the laboratory facility with blockades, land occupation, public campaigns, street protests, and media activism. [26]

The fear is understandable, but a “not in my backyard” approach is not going to get EU member states to clean up their radioactive mess.  It is this literal race to the bottom, about 500 meters underground in Finland, that other European Union countries hope will propel the European Union into a carbon neutral future while cleaning up its messy past.


[1] EU Labels Certain Natural Gas and Nuclear Power “Green”, Inst. for Energy Research (July 14, 2022), https://www.instituteforenergyresearch.org/nuclear/eu-labels-certain-natural-gas-and-nuclear-power-green/ (last visited Sept. 2, 2022).

[2] Timeline: the events leading up to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Reuters (March 1, 2022) https://www.reuters.com/world/europe/events-leading-up-russias-invasion-ukraine-2022-02-28/ (last visited Sept. 2, 2022).

[3] 3 Reasons Why Nuclear is Clean and Sustainable, Off. of Nuclear Energy, (March 31, 2021) https://www.energy.gov/ne/articles/3-reasons-why-nuclear-clean-and-sustainable (last visited Sept. 2, 2022).

[4] Germany, four others oppose classing nuclear as green in EU, Reuters (July 2, 2021) https://www.reuters.com/business/energy/germany-four-others-oppose-classing-nuclear-green-eu-2021-07-02/ (last visited Sept. 2, 2022).

[5] Backgrounder on Radioactive Waste, U.S. Nuclear Regul. Commission (July 23, 2019) https://www.nrc.gov/reading-rm/doc-collections/fact-sheets/radwaste.html (last visited Sept. 2, 2022).

[6] The World Nuclear Waste Report 2019, Arne Jungjohann (January 9, 2020)  https://arnejj.org/the-world-nuclear-waste-report-focus-europe-en/#:~:text=This%20is%20the%20finding%20of%20the%20first%20World,storage%20facilities%20across%20Europe%20%28excluding%20Russia%20and%20Slovakia%29 (last visited Sept. 2, 2022).

[7] Management of spent fuel, European Nuclear Safety Regulators Group, https://www.ensreg.eu/safe-management-spent-fuel-and-radioactive-waste/management-spent-fuel (last visited Sept. 2, 2022).

[8] Id.

[9] Id.

[10] Spent fuel and radioactive waste directive, European Nuclear Safety Regul. Group, https://www.ensreg.eu/nuclear-safety-regulation/eu-instruments/Spent-fuel-and-radioactive-waste-directive (last visited Sept. 2, 2022).

[11] Council Directive 2011/70, 2011 (Euratom) (EC). https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/ALL/?uri=CELEX:32011L0070 (last visited Sept. 4, 2022).

[12] 2009 O.J. (L 172) 52. https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/?uri=OJ%3AL%3A2009%3A172%3ATOC (last visited Sept. 4, 2022).

[13] Spent Fuel Management, nucler-power.com, https://www.nuclear-power.com/nuclear-power-plant/nuclear-fuel/spent-fuel/spent-fuel-management/ (last visited Sept. 2, 2022)

[14] Id.

[15] Id.

[16] Spent fuel and radioactive waste directive, supra note 10.

[17] Kalina Oroschakoff et al., Burying the atom: Europe struggles to dispose of nuclear waste, Politico (July 19, 2017) https://www.politico.eu/article/europes-radioactive-problem-struggles-dispose-nuclear-waste-french-nuclear-facility/ (last visited Sept. 4, 2022).

[18] Helen Gordon, Journey deep into the Finnish caverns where nuclear waste will be buried for millenia, Wired (April 24, 2017), https://www.wired.co.uk/article/olkiluoto-island-finland-nuclear-waste-onkalo (last visited Sept. 4, 2022).

[19] Id.

[20] Id.

[21] Id.

[22] Laura Gil, Finland’s Spent Fuel Repository a “Game Changer” for the Nuclear Industry, Director General Grossi Says, International Atomic Energy Agency (Nov. 26, 2020), https://www.iaea.org/newscenter/news/finlands-spent-fuel-repository-a-game-changer-for-the-nuclear-industry-director-general-grossi-says (last visited, Sept. 4, 2022).

[23] Google Maps, https://www.google.com/maps/@65.6222909,25.0494441,13z (last visited, Sept. 4, 2022).

[24] Nick Whigham, Finland’s incredible permanent nuclear waste storage facility, news.com.au (Sept. 12, 2017) https://www.news.com.au/technology/environment/finlands-incredible-permanent-nuclear-waste-storage-facility/news-story/7a1bda34374825ccae2a6e0fe5b0c2c9 (last visited Sept. 4, 2022).

[25] Nuclear waste disposal, Bure, Meuse, France, Environmental Justice Atlas, (Aug. 19, 2017) https://ejatlas.org/conflict/nuclear-waste-disposal-bure-france (last visited Sept. 4, 2022).

[26] Id.