Finland approves underground nuclear waste storage plan in world first

HELSINKI (REUTERS) - Finland has become the first country in the world to give a construction licence for a permanent underground nuclear waste repository, the centre-right government said on Thursday.

It approved Posiva Oy's plan to construct a spent nuclear fuel encapsulation plant and disposal facility at the island of Olkiluoto, western Finland.

Local people have accepted the plan.

Up to 6,500 tonnes of uranium may be deposited in the facility, some 450m below the surface in the granite bedrock.

It is estimated to become operational from around 2023.

Sweden has similar plans, but Posiva said it is a few years behind Finland.

"This is a huge step for us. We've done research and development work for this for more than 40 years," said chief executive officer Janne Mokka.

The world has 270,000 tonnes of used fuel stockpiled, much of it under water in ponds at nuclear power stations, adding to the urgency of finding a permanent storage solution for material that can remain toxic for hundreds of thousands of years.

In Posiva's disposal process, the waste will be packed in copper canisters and transferred into tunnels and further into deposition holes lined with bentonite buffer. Construction is expected to cost just under a billion euros, and the total cost estimate, including operational costs for 100 years, is €3.5 billion (S$5.3 billion).

Before the repository can go operational, Posiva must yet again analyse its environmental impacts, including the ability to retrieve the nuclear waste if necessary as well as the transport risks.

"The long-term safety of final disposal is a matter of great importance. It must be monitored throughout the service life of the disposal facility," said economy minister Olli Rehn.

Posiva is owned by utilities Fortum and TVO, whose owners in turn include forestry groups UPM-Kymmene and Stora Enso.

TVO has two reactors in Olkiluoto and it is building a third one, which is currently nine years behind its original schedule.

Fortum has two units in the south of the country.