20 February 2018 |

Translation into English of the Swedish Environmental Court’s opinion on the final repository for spent nuclear fuel – as well as some comments on the decision and the further process

MKG, the Swedish NGO Office for Nuclear Waste Review has made an unofficial translation into English of the Swedish Environmental Court opinion on the power industry’s Nuclear Waste Company SKB’s license application for a final repository for spent nuclear fuel in Forsmark, Sweden.

The court said no to the application because it considered that there were problems with the copper canister that had to be resolved now and not later. The translation shows the courts judicial argumentation and why it decided not to accept the regulator SSM’s opinion that the problems with the integrity of the copper canister were not serious and could likely be solved at a later stage in the decision-making process. The court is quite clear in its statement and argumentation:

"The Land and Environmental Court finds that the environmental impact assessment meets the requirements of the Environmental Code and can therefore be approved. All in all, the investigation meets the high standards set out in the Environmental Code, except in one respect, the safety of the canister.

The investigation shows that there are uncertainties, or risks, regarding how much certain forms of corrosion and other processes can impair the ability of the canister to contain the nuclear waste in the long term. Overall, these uncertainties about the canister are significant and have not been fully taken into account in the conclusions of SKB's safety analysis.

The Land and Environmental Court considers that there is some leeway for accepting further uncertainties. The uncertainties surrounding certain forms of corrosion and other processes are, however, of such gravity that the Court cannot, based on SKB's safety analysis, conclude that the risk criterion in the Radiation Safety Authority's regulations has been met. In the context of the comprehensive risk assessment required by the Environmental Code, the documentation presented to date does not provide sufficient support for concluding that the final repository will be safe in the long term."

The court says that the application is only permissible if the nuclear waste company SKB:

"...produces evidence that the repository in the long term will meet the requirements of the Environmental Code, despite remaining uncertainties regarding how the protective capability of the canister may be affected by
a.  corrosion due to reactions in oxygen-free water
b.  pit corrosion due to reaction with sulphide, including the contribution of the sauna effect to pit corrosion
c.  stress corrosion due to reaction with sulphide, including the contribution of the sauna effect to stress corrosion
d.  hydrogen embrittlement
e.  radioactive radiation impact on pit corrosion, stress corrosion and hydrogen embrittlement."

The court also says that before permission can be given the long-term responsibility for the the final repository according to the Environmental Code has to be clearly assigned.

It is clear that the court is very worried about the state of knowledge of how copper will work as a canister material. That the court gives the above list should be seen as a signal that the use of copper should be examined and re-evaluated seriously and in-depth.

The main difference between the court’s and the regulator’s decision-making was that the court decided to rely on a multitude of scientific sources and information and not only on the material provided by SKB. It had also been uncovered that the main corrosion expert at SSM did not want to say yes to the application at this time that may have influenced the court’s decision-making. In fact there appear to have been many dissenting voices in the regulator despite the regulator’s claim in the court that a united SSM stood behind its opinion.

The court underlines in its opinion that the Environmental Code requires that the repository should be shown to be safe at this stage in the decision-making process, i.e. before the government has its say. The court says that some uncertainties will always remain but it sees the possible copper canister problems as so serious that it is not clear that the regulator’s limits for release of radioactivity can be met. This is a reason to say no to the project unless it can be shown that the copper canister will work as intended. The copper canister has to provide isolation from the radioactivity in the spent nuclear fuel to humans and the environment for very long time-scales.

It is still unclear how the process will proceed. The community of Östhammar has cancelled the referendum on the repository, as there will be no question from the government in the near future. The government has set up a working group of civil servants to manage the government’s handling of the opinions delivered by the court and SSM. SSM has told the government that it is ok to say yes to the license application.

The court has stated that there are copper canister issues that need to be considered further. The nuclear waste company SKB has said that it is preparing documentation for the government to show that there are no problems with the canister. Whether the government thinks that this will be enough remains to be seen. This is likely not what the court had in mind. The government would be wise to make a much broader review of the issue. There is a need for a thorough judicial review on the governmental level in order to override the court’s opinion. Otherwise the government’ decision may not survive an appeal to the Supreme Administrative Court

There are eminent corrosion experts that are of the opinion that copper is a bad choice as a canister material. There is also increasing experimental evidence that this is the case. One problem for the court was likely that SKB has hesitant to do the required corrosion studies that show that copper does not corrode in an anoxic repository environment. The 18-year FEBEX field test shows that copper corrodes relatively rapidly with pitting corrosion. SKB says that all corrosion is due to in-leaking oxygen but it is now clear that experimental systems containing copper and clay become anoxic within weeks or months so this explanation is not valid.

MKG has for long wanted SKB to retrieve the next experimental package in the LOT field test in the Äspö Hard Rock Laboratory. SKB had refused. The remaining packages have now been heated for 18 years. When a 5-year package was retrieved in 2006 it was discovered that there was “unexpectedly high corrosion”. There is clearly a need for more lab and field test results to decide whether copper is a good and safe choice for a canister material.

The court’s decision-making shows the importance of a democratic and open governance in environmental decision-making. It is important that the continued decision-making regarding the Swedish repository for spent nuclear is transparent and multi-faceted.

Links:

Summary of the court's decision (translation), 180123 >> (MKG's unofficial translation into English)

Summary of the Court's statement, 180123 >> (in Swedish)

The Environmental Court's statement to the government, 180123 >> (in Swedish)

News on the SSM web site about the regulator’s opinion to the government, 180123 >>

News on the SSM web site with a comment on the court’s opinion, 180125 >>

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