Nuclear waste: Its final resting place

Nuclear waste: Its final resting place


By Rolf Haugaard Nielsen THE elevator moves swiftly, but it still takes a minute and a half to reach the bottom. If this were a building, you would have descended 150 floors. As it is, you are now almost half a kilometre underground. Step across the cobblestones, pass through the metal door and you enter a huge hall that has been blasted into the granite. To the left a long driveway leads steeply upwards to the surface. To the right the road runs down into a circular tunnel, off which extends a labyrinth teeming with researchers, engineers, even TV crews and groups of tourists in hard hats. Welcome to Sweden’s Äspö Hard Rock Laboratory, where scientists are perfecting the techniques that will be used in the world’s first permanent underground nuclear repository. What you notice most down here is the damp. Walking through the tunnels you hear the drips and the running water. You can smell it, too. You can even taste it – a brew of ancient brackish water from deep underground mixed with rainwater that has taken 7000 years to seep down from the surface. That makes this area near Oskarshamn a good test site, because water is the biggest obstacle to safe underground nuclear storage. Running water may carry corrosive chemicals that eat into the containment canisters, allowing radioactive particles to escape, and transport these particles back to the surface. There are very few areas of the world where radioactive waste can be buried in dry places (see “High and dry”),
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