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The town that wants nuclear waste

By Per Nyberg, CNN
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Final repository for nuclear waste
  • Plan to bury nuclear waste beneath Swedish town, under 500 meters of bedrock
  • Over 80% of locals approve of the idea
  • Plan is yet to be approved; local mayor can veto

(CNN) -- Like the energy source itself, it's the question that won't go away: what can be done with spent nuclear fuel?

Sweden believes it has the answer.

The plan is to bury the country's expected 12,000 tons of nuclear waste in corrosion-resistant copper canisters under 500 meters of crystalline bedrock. There it will remain isolated from human contact for at least 100,000 years.

The idea, which still needs final approval, was developed by Swedish Nuclear Fuel and Waste Management company (SKB) -- a collective of Sweden's nuclear power companies.

After three decades of research, SKB believes that Osthammar in central Sweden is the perfect final resting place for the country's nuclear waste. Not only is the 1.9 billion-year-old bedrock ideal says SKB, but the locals are largely in favor of the plan and it is close to the nuclear power plant at Forsmark.

Gallery: Sweden's nuclear waste solution
I think the closer you live the less scared you are. The waste has to be stored somewhere, so why not here?
--Erik Waernulf, Osthammar resident

I grew up not far from the Forsmark nuclear power plant. In school they took us on tours of the facility and many friends' parents worked at the plant. The region also has a long history of mining and ironworks, so having the nuclear industry as neighbor was nothing strange.

My parents still live there, and recently my mother got a call from a researcher asking her what she thought of the planned repository.

"Do you trust the authorities to solve the problem today in your neighborhood, or do you want to wait for a better technology and leave the waste to future generations who did not actually benefit from the nuclear power?" she was asked.

The latest poll showed that 88% of Osthammar residents are in favor of having the storage site in their community.

Swedes have a complicated relationship to nuclear power. Following the Three Mile Island incident in the U.S. in 1979, Sweden voted to shut down all its nuclear reactors by 2010.

However the decision was overturned by a new government and only two reactors were decommissioned. Today Sweden's 10 nuclear reactors produce almost half of the country's electricity.

Nearly 90% of Osthammar residents are in favour of having the nuclear storage site.

Sweden has so far accumulated more than 5,000 tons of spent fuel. It is stored in a bright blue water tank, 40 meters underground in the southern city of Oskarshamn. But even though the radiation is shielded by eight meters of water, this facility has to be monitored 24 hours a day, every day of the year.

"And we will certainly not do that for the next 100,000 years," Brita Freudenthal, SKB's guide at the facility told me.

After a few mishaps in the early stages of looking for a community that would be willing to accept the final repository, SKB started visiting the locals in their homes to have a face-to-face dialogue over some coffee and biscuits.

"The women talk more about the water, if they can eat the berries in the forest, if they can eat the moose they hunt. Men are more interested in the technology, if the canister will be safe. If there is a question, I've heard it," said Saida Laârouchi Engstrom from SKB.

Erik and Catharina Waernulf live in Forsmark with their four young children.

"SKB are very good at giving information" Catharina said.

"I think the closer you live the less scared you are. The waste has to be stored somewhere, so why not here?" Erik added.

For the mayor of Osthammar, Jacob Spangenberg, whether or not to accept the repository has nothing to do with the new investment and the new jobs it would generate.

"This is a possibility for our nation and our society to solve a very, very difficult problem," he said.

The industry's application is now undergoing a thorough review by the Swedish authorities. Mayor Spangenberg has the ultimate right of veto if he is not satisfied with the results.

There was another community, Oskarshamn, that also wanted the repository, but SKB's geological surveys showed that the bedrock was much safer near Forsmark.

But if the application doesn't go through, or Osthammar doesn't accept the results of the review, what is Sweden going to do with the waste? It's a tricky question that not only this Nordic country has to face.