Nuclear power is the solution to the energy crisis, but where will Europe store its radioactive waste?

A scandal is brewing in the Balkans over growing tensions over plans to build a nuclear waste storage facility.

Croatia’s plan to store radioactive waste near its border with Bosnia is facing growing opposition from its neighbor over fears that the plant could have potentially devastating health and environmental consequences.

The site near the Una River, a tributary of the Danube, was chosen in 2018. In an effort to stop the plan, Bosnia responded by declaring its land closest to the site a nature reserve.

The scheme has not gained traction, and as the inauguration approaches, Bosnians are increasingly concerned about the possible effects on their pristine rivers and organic farming, not to mention public health.

“We fear that the main impact of this destructive proposal will be on people’s lives and the environment,” says Mario Crnkovic, an ecologist from Novi Grad on the Bosnian side of the border, about a kilometer from the allocated site.

Croatia has dismissed the concerns, but critics note that the government has yet to publish any health or environmental risk assessments.

The area is prone to flooding and regular seismic activity. It is also still being cleared of landmines left over from the Balkan wars of the 1990s.

Bosnian authorities hope that the Croatian government might still change its mind. However, during the conflict, Bosnia offered to build its own facility next to Croatia’s main tourist center, Dubrovnik.

Diplomatic incidents over nuclear waste

The scandal in the Balkans is not the only diplomatic incident involving nuclear waste dumping in recent years.

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In 2020, the Belgian government announced that it had received recommendations for seven underground nuclear waste disposal sites, but did not specify where they were located.

Suspicion soon arose in Luxembourg, with Luxembourg Environment Minister Carole Dishbourg saying they would be near Namur, Dinan and Stavelot, close to their border with Belgium.

“It’s right on our doorstep,” the minister said, outlining the potential dangers to local residents and accusing the Belgian government of violating the Espoo Convention, which governs cross-border reporting of environmental impacts.

In response, Belgian Energy and Environment Minister Marie-Christine Marghem accused Dishbourg of a “campaign of misinformation.”

“Handing out a map with these alleged sites to the Luxembourg population or talking about possible water pollution is nothing less than a malicious campaign of disinformation,” said Marghem.

Where will nuclear waste be stored in the future?

The Russian occupiers, who seized the Chernobyl nuclear power plant by force during the invasion of Ukraine, have drawn public attention to the dangers associated with unsafe nuclear waste.

Most operational nuclear waste repositories are at the surface level, and the UK, France and Spain use these short-term solutions.

For the future, however, everyone agrees that nuclear waste is best stored in a Geological Disposal Facility (GDF) deep beneath our feet. Here, 700 to 1,000 meters underground, spent reactors would be safely processed and sealed in stone structures with cement, leaving them to decompose for hundreds of thousands of years.

Previous proposals to send waste into space or bury it at the bottom of the ocean have been rejected, but the question of how to warn future generations of the dangers of landfills remains unresolved.

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With no guarantee that today’s languages will be spoken or that modern iconography will be recognizable thousands of years from now, there is a risk that still dangerous toxic waste could be accidentally discovered by curious archaeologists of the future.

In the 1980s, the U.S. government convened the Human Interface Task Force to figure out how to prevent such a catastrophic accident. One of their recommendations was to create false myths and legends to scare off the curious.

Do communities need GDFs?

Not only does this toxic issue cause problems at the borders, but it is also often the reason why local residents hotly contest their governments’ proposals for GDFs near their communities.

In Britain, the country’s first GDF (which would store 20th-century waste currently stored in Sellafield, Cumbria) has been positioned as a major infrastructure project that would bring jobs and prosperity, leading to competition between several remote areas.

Nevertheless, residents are not very interested in hosting the toxic storage facility, and retirees in the Lincolnshire village of Taddlethorpe are particularly active.

Meanwhile, in the sleepy French village of Bure, clashes between protesters and police over the GDF deep within the region’s clay soil have raised serious concerns about a potential nuclear leak.

Otherwise, the Nordic countries are approaching the issue with typical pragmatism and calm.

Finland is close to completing Onkalo, the world’s first operational GDF at Olkiluoto, 200 kilometers from Helsinki on the country’s stormy west coast.

Sweden also recently gave the go-ahead for a GDF in Forsmark, Ӧsthammar, where local residents voted to store waste in the billion-year-old granite on top of which the area sits.

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In both cases, lengthy public consultations led to public acceptance of the projects.

Will we need more nuclear waste repositories in the future?

The war in Ukraine has made Europeans think about energy security and weaning the continent off Russian fossil fuels. But even before that, the need to become carbon-neutral by 2050 meant that nuclear power was on the menu.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has pledged to build eight new reactors over the next 20 years to meet a quarter of the country’s energy needs.

Engine maker Rolls-Royce has also participated in the creation of the world’s first small modular reactors, which are easier to store and use.

Meanwhile, Emmanuel Macron has pledged to build 14 new European pressurized reactors to power the French Republic by 2050 and help them on their way to carbon neutrality. And Germany is reconsidering its ban on nuclear power after the 2011 Fukushima disaster in Japan.

To prevent the accumulation of nuclear waste at surface facilities and the long-term use of fossil fuels leading to catastrophic climate change, a solution must be found. Can we extinguish diplomatic tensions and local protests before it is too late?

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