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World dilemma: how to store nuclear waste

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STOCKHOLM, Sweden (Reuters) -- Since the start of the nuclear era, highly radioactive waste has been crossing continents and oceans in search of a secure and final resting place.

Nearly all countries produce nuclear waste, some types of which can remain radioactive for thousands of years, but they cannot agree on the best way to store it.

At present highly radioactive waste is put into interim storage where it has to sit for 30-40 years for its radioactivity and heat production to decline. It is still hazardous and should be stored somewhere permanently.

In many countries it is unclear who will pay for the cost divided over hundreds, even hundreds of thousands of years. Utilities could end up with a bigger bill than expected.

Most high-level waste, the most dangerous kind, is spent fuel from the over 400 nuclear power reactors in more than 30 countries. The dismantling of nuclear weapons adds to the pile.

Even nuclear-free states produce waste from industry, hospitals providing radiation therapy, and research centers.

Experts say technology exists for secure underground deposits which could last millions of years. Most countries plan to seal the highly hazardous waste in containers and store it 500-1,000 meters (1,640-3,280 feet) underground.

Sceptics say it could be safe for decades or even centuries, but at some point it would be bound to leak or be attacked by terrorists.

"If there isn't a responsible solution to deal with nuclear waste, it may be better to keep it above ground for a while longer when we are looking for technology that is safer," said Martina Krueger, who works for the environmental organization Greenpeace in Sweden.

To open or not?

Some politicians have demanded that the repositories are built so that future generations can open them and eliminate the waste with the help of new technology.

Others say that would also leave the deposits vulnerable to potential social chaos thousands of years down the line.

If waste is safe in interim storage, why not keep it there?

"Sure it's safe...but what we have to communicate are the trade-offs," said Thomas Sanders from Sandia National Laboratories, owned by the U.S. government.

Some nuclear plants are already running into the limits of their storage capacity. And since the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States attention has turned to individual plants and whether these can be protected from terrorist attacks.

European Union countries plan to build repositories by around 2020, but some have not even started considering sites. In 2001 Finland became the first and so far only EU state to decide on a site for a final storage.

The United States plans to deposit waste from its 103 nuclear plants beneath the Yucca Mountain in Nevada. The site should open in 2010, but faces local protests and legal hurdles.

Critics say big central repositories would again increase the risk of accidents or theft because the nuclear waste has to be transported to them from each plant.

Who pays?

In many cases it is unclear for how long nuclear waste is the liability of the firm causing it, and when the state takes over.

This makes it tough for utilities to calculate the cost, especially if the repositories are built in such a way that they have to be guarded for security reasons.

"It is difficult to give precise costs because France hasn't decided on a strategy on long-term waste management," said Yves le Bars, chairman of ANDRA, the national radioactive waste management agency in France, the EU's biggest nuclear power.

"We say it will take between 15 to 25 billion euros to build a repository, operate it and close it for the existing facilities," he said. This would cover high-level waste from France's 58 nuclear plants, assuming fuel would be reprocessed.

Finding a location for a dump is one of the biggest hurdles.

In South Korea, the state tried for years to find a county willing to host a repository for low and intermediate level waste. Finally this year, Buan county applied for the deposit and suggested Wi-do island as a host.

The island has 1,000 inhabitants, most of them fishermen.

"They decided to accept the repository because the government is paying a tremendous financial package," said Myung Jae Song, general manager at the Korea Hydro and Nuclear Power Company, the world's fifth largest producer of nuclear power.

Mohamed ElBaradei, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), suggested in early December that countries should consider shared storage, even though no state should be forced to deal with another's atomic waste.

At Eurajoki, site of Finland's final repository, people were upset by the idea that their town could one day start importing foreign waste, said local politician Altti Lucander.

"It causes confusion and may lead to there being no acceptance for national deposits," Lucander said.

Copyright 2003 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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