Guest Post: A Comparison of Two Geological Disposal Facilities, and the Implications of International Nuclear Law

This past March I taught a week-long course at the University of Manchester, in the UK.  The course was, as far as I know, unique. The title of the course was “International Nuclear Energy Law.”  I designed the course to cover the international legal sources regulating the civilian nuclear energy industry.  So both hard and soft law sources on nuclear safeguards, trade in nuclear technologies, nuclear facility and materials safety and security, nuclear incident liability, nuclear materials transport, radioactive waste disposal and the environment, and international investment law related to nuclear facility new builds. This was definitely a bit of a stretch from my usual short-course subject of nuclear nonproliferation law, but of course there is considerable overlap and I wanted to expand my teaching and research repertoire.  And as it happens, Manchester has both a very strong nuclear engineering school and an excellent law school.  So along with friends on both faculties, we designed this course to be cross listed for both law students and nuclear science students.  The result was just remarkable.  The class of 28 students was comprised about equally of law students and nuclear science (engineering, physics, chemistry, etc.) students. And the discussions that ensued were fascinating, with both groups contributing insights from their disciplines.  I think the group work particularly was enjoyable for the students.  Every day in the afternoon I would give them a case study based on the morning’s lecture, and break them into groups containing both law students and nuclear science students, and have them work together to come up with an answer which they then reported to the full class.  Seeing the discussions that they had among the different disciplines was really exciting.  I’m hoping the course will become a regular, annual event.

So, among the final papers that were submitted by the students in the course, I thought I would post one of the best ones here, so that readers could see the kind of subjects we discussed in the course.  The below is the course paper submitted by Amber Mason, who is a PhD student in her second year at the Materials Science and Engineering Department at the University of Sheffield.  Her research involves investigating potential materials for the purpose of nuclear waste immobilisation, with a particular focus on the plutonium stockpile currently stored at Sellafield, UK.  She wrote the below paper for the course comparing two different examples of geological disposal facilities for radioactive waste, and also considering the requirements of international law for such facilities.  I thought it was a great paper, so wanted to share it (with her permission of course).  Comments welcome.


Comparison of Onkalo and Yucca Mountain Geological Disposal Facilities: What Lessons can be Learned to Ensure Future Success?

By: Amber Mason



The production of energy using nuclear fission has created an international inventory of radioactive waste which requires careful disposal due to its potential hazards to human health. This situation will remain the same for the next million years, at which point the radiotoxicity of the longest lived radionuclides will decay to that of naturally occurring radioactive materials (see Figure 1 [1]).

Figure 1

(Figure 1 – A graph to show the decay of radiotoxicity of the longer lived actinides and shorter lived fission products, both present in spent nuclear fuel)


The general principles of nuclear waste management established by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in 2011[2] are to:

  1. Minimise wastes generated at every stage of the nuclear fuel cycle
  2. Build trust between all parties involved in nuclear waste management by transparency and openness in decision making
  3. Ensure the protection of humans and the environment from the hazards of radioactive wastes for as long as they remain hazardous
  4. Ensure the security and non-proliferation of the radioactive waste
  5. Continually reassess and improve methods to increase efficiency and reduce costs.

The Joint Convention on the Safety of Spent Fuel Management and on the Safety of Radioactive Waste Management [3] is a key treaty produced by the IAEA in 1997 and has been in place since 2001. It is the first international legal instrument to deal with the safety of nuclear waste with the aim to create improved and consistent standards across all nations through co-operation and the sharing of information between those nations. Its objectives are to ensure that at all stages of waste management, the environment and humans against the hazards from radiation and also, to prevent the occurrence of accidents, taking steps to mitigate the hazards should an accident occur. It concerns all types of radioactive waste generated from civilian programs and calls for environmental assessments to take place prior to the construction of a waste disposal facility. A significant clause in this treaty is Article 4(vii), which states that ‘each Contracting Party shall take the appropriate steps to… aim to avoid imposing undue burdens on future generations.’

There are six different categories of nuclear waste as defined by the IAEA [4] (see Table 1). High level waste can also encompass spent nuclear fuel (SNF), which is the fuel removed from a nuclear reactor after burn up is complete. However this is not the case for all countries as some consider SNF to be a source of future energy by reprocessing the fuel. The internationally agreed consensus for the disposal of the most hazardous of wastes (ILW and HLW) is to place the material in a geological disposal facility (GDF). This is an underground facility to prevent radioactive waste from contaminating the accessible biosphere [5].

Waste Category Definition Disposal Route
Exempt No requirement for regulatory control Landfill
Very short lived waste (VSLW) Stored to allow radionuclides to decay (no longer that a few years) after which time, no longer under regulatory control Landfill after decay storage period
Very low level waste (VLLW) Contains some low level of contamination and requires limited levels of control (no long lived radionuclides) Near surface landfill
Low level waste (LLW) Limited long lived radionuclides therefore isolation only required for a few hundred years Near surface disposal
Intermediate level waste (ILW) Larger quantities of long lived radionuclides but no heat dissipation requirements Deep geological disposal
High level waste (HLW) Heat generating radioactive decay present or large quantities of long lived radionuclides Deep geological disposal

(Table 1 – The IAEA categories of nuclear waste and their appropriate disposal route)

The general role of a GDF is to store radioactive wastes with passive safety i.e. upon closure of the site, further monitoring and intervention will no longer be required. The facility will rely on careful engineering with the waste contained within several layers of barriers such as the outer container material and backfill material to prevent water ingress. Each of these barriers are designed in such a way that the failure of one element does not compromise the overall long term safety of the GDF, by limiting the corrosion of the wasteform and transportation of radionuclides into the biosphere. The term disposal infers that the waste will not be retrievable from the GDF, however this possibility is not ruled out by IAEA regulations [6] and it is therefore a decision for the national regulator to make as to whether the waste should be retrievable since what is considered to be waste at present may become an asset for future generations.

Based on the ‘IAEA Safety Guide: Geological Disposal Facilities for Radioactive Waste’ [7], there are several important factors to consider before the construction of a GDF, the most problematic of these being the siting of the facility. The IAEA states some basic properties of a geological disposal facility site: long term geological stability, low and stable groundwater rate and flow, stable geochemical environment (reducing conditions) and good engineering properties [8]. They also suggest that ‘potentially suitable disposal locations exist in many types of host rocks and geological environments’, therefore placing greater emphasis on the engineered barrier system to provide the safety case as opposed to the geological environment. The guidelines also highlight the importance of socio-political effects on the decision of siting with a ‘not in my backyard (NIMBY)’ opinion shared by many due to the public being generally sceptical about nuclear technologies and their safety.

This paper will compare two countries who are at very different stages of progress in the development of a GDF: the USA, which had a proposed site at Yucca Mountain, Nevada and invested millions of dollars in characterisation of this site, and Finland which now has a license to construct the first GDF for the disposal of civil nuclear waste.



In Finland, there are currently two nuclear power plants (NPPs) in operation, one of which is located at Olkiluoto, an island in the south-west of the country. There are two utility companies each responsible for a NPP; Teollisuuden Voima Oy (TVO) at Olkiluoto NPP and Fortum Power and Heat Oy for the NPP at Loviisa. At present, the SNF generated at these NPP is stored on the site of each nuclear reactor with STUK (Radiation and Nuclear Safety Authority) regulating the safety of the waste disposal process, working alongside the Ministry of Trade and Industry.

The Nuclear Energy Act 1987 [9] is the main legislation in Finland and defines the law surrounding the storage, transportation and disposal of nuclear waste. It states that ‘nuclear waste generated in connection with or as a result of use of nuclear energy in Finland shall be handled, stored and permanently disposed of in Finland.’ In Section 9, this legislation also states that the licensee of the nuclear facility (i.e. the appropriate utility company) ‘shall be responsible for all nuclear waste management measures and their appropriate preparation, as well as for their costs’. It defines any site which stores nuclear waste, including a GDF, as a nuclear facility and must therefore abide by the laws stated in the Nuclear Energy Act. The nuclear utilities make payments into the National Nuclear Waste Management Fund according to the legislation, which is managed by the Ministry of Trade and Industry. The charges (about 10% of generation costs) are set annually by the government according to the assessed liabilities for each company, and also cover potential decommissioning costs [10].

The schedule for SNF disposal was decided by the Finnish government in 1983. Six potential sites were selected and characterised by Posiva Oy (a company set up and jointly owned by TVO and Fortum Power and Heat Oy) between 1992 and 1998 [11]. The Olkiluoto site was selected in 1999, based upon both the results of the characterisation despite the local council being opposed to the plans initially. This is because Posiva highlighted the financial benefits that a GDF could bring to the community as well as introducing a community engagement program. This comprised of newsletters to the residents of Olkiluoto about the progress of plans and investigations, which residents reported created a sense of community and inclusion. This lead to complete reversal of opinion and to the residents of Olkiluoto effectively volunteering themselves to host the GDF [12].

An application submitted to government and a decision-in-principle to build a GDF on this site was ratified by Parliament in 2001 based upon further site characterisation. The Onkalo Rock Characterisation site was constructed in 2004 for this purpose (where the literal translation for Onkalo is cavity). Posiva Oy executed the investigations to establish the knowledge base for the site. The factors considered for the site were: hydrology, rock dynamics, climate, vegetation, seismic and social factors [13]. Posiva Oy applied for a construction license in 2012 which was granted by the government in 2015 [14]. The Finnish geological repository is the first GDF for civil nuclear waste to acquire its license. This facility is situated at a depth of 500m and comprises of a ramp, shaft and drifts (see Figure 2 [15]). The GDF will remain open for approximately 100 years before finally going through decommissioning and closure in 2120.

Figure 2

(Figure 2 – Key features of the Onkalo waste storage facility)


The United States has 99 NPPs at present [16] and has generated more than 65000 tonnes of SNF with at least a further 2500 tonnes generated each year [17]. Spent fuel assemblies are placed in cooling ponds for 5 years until their heat output has reduced enough for them to be stored in dry cask storage on the NPP site. There are three key agencies responsible for regulating the disposal of this nuclear waste: US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the US Department of Energy (DOE). The NRC is responsible for developing and implementing regulations for the safe interim storage and permanent disposal for nuclear waste. In order to ensure that the GDF is sufficient to protect the biosphere from the radioactivity in the SNF, the EPA establishes heath and safety standards. The DOE has the largest role to play in the implementation of GDF, as it is responsible for disposing of all commercial SNF, as stated in the Nuclear Waste Policy Act [18]. It is also responsible for licensing of new NPP sites.

The primary national law which states how radioactive waste should be disposed of in the USA, in particular civil SNF, is the Nuclear Waste Policy Act (1982) [18]. It declares that the DOE is responsible for disposing of HLW in one GDF with a capacity of 70000 tonnes of SNF (a limit which was put in place to ensure a second repository would also be built [19]). As a consequence of this legislation, each utility company was required to enter into a contract with the DOE for the disposal of the waste [20]. This was enforced by ensuring that the new sites could not be licensed without entering into a contract with the DOE to dispose of the waste accrued throughout the lifetime of the plant. The agreements stated that disposal would commence in 1998 in exchange for the fees described in the NWPA and is officially known as the Standard Contract for Disposal of Spent Nuclear Fuel and/or High Level Waste.

From this legislation, the utilities paid a 0.1 cent/kWh into the Nuclear Waste Fund (NWF), which had accrued over $21 billion by the end of 2016, of which $1 billion is from interest per year [21]. From this fund, there have also been $7 billion as funding disbursements for the Yucca Mountain program, totalling $28 billion. In November 2013 a federal appeals court unanimously ruled that the DOE should cease collecting the fees from utilities and the DOE stopped collecting the waste fees in May 2014.

After the NWPA was produced in 1982, three possible were chosen in the following states: Washington, Nevada and Texas. The state of Nevada does not have any NPP but does have a history of nuclear weapons testing (with Yucca Mountain being close to the Nevada Test Site) and military nuclear applications. Due to government tension caused by other international events in the nuclear sector, amendments were made to the NWPA and, in 1987, Yucca Mountain in Nevada was selected as the only site suitable for a geological repository, eliminating all site alternatives and removing the limit on the capacity of the GDF. The stated benefit of this action was to limit expenditure by investigating a single site rather than three separate sites. Some scientific advantages to the Yucca Mountain site were detailed (such as the aridity of the site slowing the movement of radionuclides) however these are still contested by some [22].  The Yucca Mountain site is based on a dry repository, placed at 300m above the water table, in the unsaturated zone which is in an oxidising state, allowing air to degrade the SNF and increase its surface area [22]. The USA remains the only country to propose this type of repository, with most others preferring to site in an isolated saturated zone, since it is a reducing environment which promotes to stability of spent nuclear fuel in the GDF.

After further site characterisation, the US Senate approved the Yucca Mountain site in 2002, after which the State of Nevada submitted a Notice of Disapproval which was overruled by the DOE, with the support of the President and Congress. An application for a license by the DOE was then submitted to the NRC for approval, using the standards specified by the EPA. This decision was delayed at the court of appeals due to the EPA changing the requirements for compliance for the site from 10,000 years (as in 40 CFR 191B) to one million years. The license application was subsequently revised to take this into account and a second application was submitted in 2008 [23].

Additional opposition to the proposal occurred when Senator Harry Reid, a long term challenger of the Yucca Mountain Project, was elected in the 2008 midterm Congressional elections. By 2009, the Obama Administration illegally (according to the NWPA) terminated the Yucca Mountain project. A large portion of the funding allocated for the project was also removed [24]. In 2010, the NRC and DOE filed a motion to withdraw the application for license for Yucca Mountain, however due to this contradicting the terms of the NWPA, many lawsuits have been filed to prevent this action.

By defaulting on the commitment in the NWPA to begin storage of SNF at Yucca Mountain by 1998, $6 billion was paid to utilities by the US government as damages for unplanned interim storage on site [25]. This is a consequence of the Standard Contract for Disposal of Spent Nuclear Fuel and/or High Level Waste between the utilities and the NRC. An amendment was made known as the Waste Confidence Rule in 2009 which stated that SNF could be safely stored on the site of the NPP for 60 years after the end of fuel generation, rather than the 30 years previously stated. The NRC was then challenged to prove (with sufficient data and a generic environment impact statement) that the waste could be stored on site indefinitely in the event that a permanent disposal site is never constructed. The results found that SNF can be safely stored on the NPP site indefinitely and was renamed to become the Continued Storage Rule in 2014. Contracts for new build NPP must now incorporate storage the SNF for the lifetime of the reactor.

In January 2010, Obama appointed the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future to solely focus on the back end of the nuclear fuel. They submitted a report in 2012, to the then Energy Secretary Steven Chu. Specific site recommendations are not included in this report but the report does make seven suggestions to solve some of the issues which arose during the Yucca Mountain project. These focus on ‘timely development of one or more permanent deep geological facilities for the safe disposal of spent fuel and high-level nuclear waste’ [17]. The findings of the report also include recommendations for a new single purpose organisation that will develop the program for the transportation, storage and disposal of the waste. It isn’t made clear whether this organisation should have federal involvement but recognises that this may take several years to come to fruition and throughout this time, further scientific research should take place. It also recommends guaranteed access to the NWF and changes to policy surrounding the funding of the disposal of radioactive waste as well as maintaining the current regulatory bodies (EPA and NRC). The most interesting part of the recommendations are those concerning the siting of the new GDF, suggesting that all levels of government should have at least a ‘meaningful consultative role’ in decision making regarding this issue. It is also suggested that siting should be: flexible with several options of location which can be adapted upon information received, transparent with emphasis on scientific information and consent from all stakeholders involved, and should be governed by legally enforceable agreements between all parties.

A change in government has made the future of the USA’s geological disposal more uncertain than ever with a request in the fiscal year 2018 for $150 million for the DOE and NRC to reinstatement the license application of the Yucca Mountain facility by the Trump administration.

How do Finland and USA compare?

Each of the country’s approaches to the issue of radioactive waste disposal took very different approaches to try to achieve the same end goal of safely disposing of the accumulated spent nuclear fuel and reducing the burden on future generations. There are many factors at play throughout the decisions described above, both political and scientific in nature. When assessing these considerations it is important to note that the scale of the repositories and the quantities of fuel destined for permanent disposal are very different in each case.

The key difference in national policy between the two nations is that the responsibility for SNF permanent disposal was placed with the waste producers in Finland with government only having an advisory and regulatory role. In the USA, the NWPA placed this responsibility with the DOE. The Blue Ribbon Commission has made recommendations that this be changed in future and has made changes to current legislation, to reverse some of the negative effects that have occurred due to incorporating rigid timelines e.g. updating the Waste Confidence Rule etc.

Another integral part of the NWPA which created many problems for the GDF project in the USA was the decision to choose one site and amend the NWPA accordingly. The realisation of the difficulties this created has resulted in a move in thoughts from the disposal strategy relying heavily on the correct geology, as in this case, to creating reliable engineered barriers. This reduces the importance of choosing the ‘correct’ site. Building trust within the scientific community has also been suggested as an improvement to the Yucca Mountain project, by introducing a peer review system to the scientific investigations undertaken, as opposed to relying solely on regulatory science [26].

The positive involvement of the Finnish public in the decision making process was shown to be effective at resolving the most problematic of potential siting issues [27]. In the case of Yucca Mountain, the state of Nevada vetoing the decision the site the repository there suggests that not enough was done to make the public aware of the necessity of a GDF, when reaping the rewards of nuclear power, as well as making any financial benefits obvious to the local government and community. This could have been done by highlighting the positive effects on the local economy such as increasing jobs in the area [28]. Due to issues such as nuclear waste disposal being difficult to understand for the general public, efforts must be made to improve public understanding since many are sceptical that nuclear technologies can be safe. In order to improve this situation, trust must be developed by integrating transparency throughout the course of the consultancy and construction stages [12]. The UK is currently in the process of assessing potential sites for its GDF and is doing so by increasing public engagement and involvement with the decision by making the benefits of the site clear and allowing communities to volunteer to host the site [29].

The results of the Blue Ribbon Commission suggests that lessons have been learned since the Yucca Mountain proposal. Suggested that the NWPA was too heavily influenced by political considerations and heavily tied to guidelines which were too inflexible for what is a complex decision to make with many involved parties. However deadlines should exist since this is an urgent issue, but it is better to take more time to make a well informed decision. Using the lessons learned, some of which are described above, the IAEA produced a document with guidelines for the planning and design of a GDF in 2014 [30]. This highlights the importance of international cooperation in improving standard and progression in this complex process [31].

These comparisons highlight the importance of the IAEA General Principles of Nuclear Waste Management 2011 covered in the Introduction of this paper. The points which are particularly relevant are: to build trust between all parties involved, and to learn from previous experience to improve efficiency. This were published after the GDF projects described in this paper, but it is evident that these guidelines, built upon the past experiences of GDF policy, will play a crucial role in the success of future GDF construction worldwide.


The development and construction of a geological disposal facility is a long term, complex and essential project for countries with a civil nuclear industry, as shown by the examples discussed above. It involves many parties with differing interests and also the challenge of predicting the behaviour of many different interconnecting factors long into the future. The safety case for a geological disposal facility is based on our current knowledge of how the geological site and the engineered barriers will interact over thousands of years. Experience is the greatest source of knowledge, and as more GDFs are constructed, information can be gained and shared throughout the nuclear sector (NPPs being an excellent example of this). A lack of experience in this field worldwide has generated many issues so far, but an openness between the implementing organisations, federal and local governments, stakeholders and the general public can help to ease some of these problems.



[1]       R. C. Ewing, “Nuclear waste forms for actinides,” Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U. S. A., vol. 96, no. 7, pp. 3432–3439, 1999.

[2]       International Atomic Energy Agency, “Radioactive Waste Management Objectives,” 2011.

[3]       International Atomic Energy Agency, “Joint convention on the safety of spent fuel management and on the safety of radioactive waste management,” 2006.

[4]       International Atomic Energy Agency, “Classification of Radioactive Waste,” 2009.

[5]       International Atomic Energy Agency, “Disposal of radioactive waste.,” 2011.

[6]       International Atomic Energy Agency, “Geological Disposal of Radioactive Waste: Technological Implications for Retrievability,” 2009.

[7]       International Atomic Energy Agency, “Geological Disposal Facilities for Radioactive Waste,” 2011.

[8]       International Atomic Energy Agency, “Scientific and Technical Basis for the Geological Disposal of Radioactive Wastes,” Tech. Reports Ser. No. 413, p. 90, 2003.

[9]       Ministry of Trade and Industry, Nuclear Energy Act. Finland, 2008, p. 39.

[10]    N. Nuclear Energy Agency, “Nuclear Legislation in OECD and NEA Countries: Regulatory and Institutional Framework for Nuclear Activities – Finland,” 2008.

[11]    Posiva Oy, “Nuclear waste management of the Olkiluoto and Loviisa nuclear power plants,” 2011.

[12]    H. Hänninen and S. Yli-Kauhaluoma, “The Social Construction of Nuclear Community: Building Trust in the World’s First Repository for Spent Nuclear Fuel ,” Bull. Sci. Technol. Soc. , vol. 34, no. 5–6, pp. 133–144, 2014.

[13]    O. Okko, “Establishment of IAEA knowledge of integrity of the geological repository boundaries and disposed spent fuel assemblies in the context of the Finnish geological repository,” Helsinki, 2004.

[14]    STUK, “Disposal of spent fuel in Finland,” 2017. [Online]. Available: [Accessed: 30-Apr-2018].

[15]    Z. Turner, “A 100,000-Year Tomb for Finland’s Nuclear Waste,” Wall Street Journal, 2017. [Online]. Available:

[16]    World Nuclear Association, “Nuclear Power in the USA,” 2018. [Online]. Available: [Accessed: 30-Apr-2018].

[17]    M. H. Ayers, V. A. Bailey, A. Carnesale, P. V. Domenici, S. Eisenhower, C. Hagel, J. Lash, A. M. Macfarlane, R. A. Meserve, E. J. Moniz, P. E. Peterson, J. W. Rowe, and P. Sharp, “Blue Ribbon Commission On America’s Nuclear Future: Report to the Secretary of Energy,” 2012.

[18]    U.S. Department of Energy, Nuclear Waste Policy Act,  March. USA, 2004, pp. 1–146.

[19]    R. B. Stewart, “Solving the U . S . Nuclear Waste Dilemma,” Environ. Law Rep., vol. 40, no. 8, pp. 10783–10802, 2010.

[20]    D. R. Hill, “The status of radioactive waste repository development in the United States,” Nucl. Law Bull., vol. 88, pp. 7–18, 2011.

[21]    D. Bodansky, Nuclear Energy: Principles, Practices, and Prospects. 2004.

[22]    R. C. Ewing and A. M. Macfarlane, “Yucca Mountain,” Science vol. 296, no. 5568, p. 659-660, 2002.

[23]    S. Frishman, “Future Shock in Nuclear Waste Disposal,” in Values in Decisions on Risk 2006, 2006, pp. 265–272.

[24]    World Nuclear Association, “U.S. Nuclear Power Policy,” World Nuclear Association, 2018. [Online]. Available:

[25]    D. Kramer, “Nevada and Trump administration face off over Yucca Mountain,” Phys. Today, vol. 70, no. 10, pp. 32–35, 2017.

[26]    A. Macfarlane, “Underlying Yucca Mountain: The Interplay of Geology and Policy in Nuclear Waste Disposal,” Soc. Stud. Sci., vol. 33, no. 5, pp. 783–807, 2003.

[27]    I. Chatzis, “Solving the back end : Finland’s key to the final disposal of spent nuclear fuel,” IAEA Bull., no. November, pp. 8–9, 2017.

[28]    OECD and Nuclear Energy Agency, “Nuclear Legislation in OECD and NEA Countries: United States of America,” 2016.

[29]    NDA, “Integrated Waste Management NDA Higher Activity Waste Strategy,” 2016.

[30]    International Atomic Energy Agency, “Planning and Design Considerations for Geological Repository Programmes of Radioactive Waste,” 2014.

[31]    National Academy of Sciences, Disposition of High-level Waste and Spent Nuclear Fuel – The Continuing Societal and Technical Challenges. 2001.



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