Analysis: Nuclear plant reactor would generate 12 tons of spent fuel a year

Render of a GE-Hitachi BWRX-300 nuclear reactor.
Render of a GE-Hitachi BWRX-300 nuclear reactor. Source: Fermi Energia

The possible construction of a nuclear power plant in Estonia is up to the Riigikogu to decide. To facilitate a knowledge-based decision on the matter, the Ministry of Climate-led nuclear energy working group commissioned several analyses, according to the latest of which a single nuclear reactor in Estonia would likely generate 12 tons of spent fuel a year, or 720 tons of nuclear waste in its lifetime.

In the latest analysis, experts assessed the quantities of radioactive waste generated in a nuclear power plant (NPP) as well as options for their treatment and storage, according to a ministry press release.

As small reactors that would be suited for use in Estonia aren't currently in use yet, the quantities of waste presented in the analysis are estimates based on the data for the GE Hitachi BWRX-300 reactor, considered conditionally suitable, as well as on current NPP experiences.

Assuming the lifetime of a NPP is 60 years, then a combined total of 720 tons of spent fuel per reactor would be generated within this period, equaling around three shipping containers in size.

Radioactive waste expert Peter Breitenstein, the author of the analysis, recommends Estonia keep its spent fuel management options open.

"Under current circumstances, reprocessing a relatively small quantity of spent nuclear fuel may be an interesting high-level radioactive waste (HLW) management approach, but perhaps not immediately feasible," Breitenstein acknowledged. "Nevertheless, it is essential not to impose legal restrictions on the option of fuel reprocessing, as it may still prove to be a practical solution in the future."

The state will have to decide between an open or closed fuel cycle, i.e. decide whether spent fuel is to be treated as waste requiring long-term storage and then disposal, or require it to be reprocessed.

Should Estonia decide in favor of a closed fuel cycle, France would be the only potential fuel reprocessor in Europe. The complex and costly transport of nuclear material, however, would have to be considered in connection with reprocessing, and Estonia would also have to find a buyer for the mixed oxide fuel (MOX) produced from spent fuel if the country has no use for such fuel itself.

Following reprocessing, a small amount of waste that cannot be recycled would be returned to Estonia as well, which would still require disposal.

In the case of an open fuel cycle, the analysis proposes three options for spent fuel disposal: establishing a deep geological disposal site, similar to Finland and Sweden; establishing a disposal site using the borehole method, in which waste is placed in special capsules located 1-3 kilometers underground; or participating in the establishment of a regional disposal site.

Antti Tooming, chair of the nuclear energy working group and undersecretary of biodiversity and environmental protection at the Ministry of Climate, said that the future operator of the plant should also consider the possibility of using nuclear fuel made from spent fuel in technical applications.

"Using such fuel does not require major technical changes in the design of the reactor," Tooming highlighted. "Besides, the possibilities for reprocessing spent fuel are constantly being developed throughout the world."

The analysis stresses that the state must also develop a legal framework for the establishment and management of a fund for the disposal of radioactive waste generated in a NPP as well as for post-decommissioning costs based on the polluter-pays principle. This fund's resources would be used for the treatment and disposal of the plant's end-of-life waste.

The issue of radioactive waste produced by a NPP is one of the 19 aspects that a state considering the implementation of nuclear energy is required to analyze according to the guidelines of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

The final report of Estonia's nuclear energy group, which will be used to decide whether the construction of a nuclear power plant in Estonia will contribute to ensuring energy security and climate goals, will be completed by the end of this year.

The Riigikogu can thereafter decide whether nuclear energy has a future in Estonia.


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Editor: Aili Vahtla

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