Opinion | Out of sight, out of mind?

It’s hard to disagree with Health Minister Astrid Krag, who said, “We need to clean up after ourselves and not leave our radioactive waste for the generations that follow”. Those of us in the five councils that have been short-listed as sites for a possible waste-storage facility certainly agree.

The question is, “how?” How do we clean up after decades of nuclear-energy research? How do we ensure that future generations don’t have to deal with radioactive waste? Is it best to bury it underground? Is it really a matter of ‘out of sight, out of mind’?

When the Risø plant opened in 1958, there were high hopes that Denmark would become a leader in nuclear-energy research. At the time, no-one considered what would happen to waste generated by the research. It wasn’t until 2003, after tests revealed that one of the reactors was corroded and starting to leak, that parliament decided to decommission Risø’s nuclear-research facilities. 

Parliament also called for a report to guide decisions about a national facility where low- and medium-level radioactive waste could be stored. Lawmakers emphasised that any decision would be based on input from affected councils and residents.

Thus, the search began to find a suitable storage-facility site. But first, a number of feasibility studies had to be conducted, geologists at GEUS had to determine the makeup of the earth underground, decommissioning authorities had to design a storage facility and health authorities had to determine the health risks.

By 2011, geologists had identified 22 suitable sites, later narrowing down the list to six sites in five councils – Bornholm, Kerteminde, Lolland, Struer and Skive. Parliament was supposed to further reduce the list to two or three sites by autumn 2012. 

Along the way, something happened. The Health Ministry apparently forgot it was supposed to work together with the councils, and  overlooked its promise to inform potentially affected residents. In 2011, when we were told that our five councils were on the short list, we all dug in our heels. None of us want radioactive waste.

Even though experts constantly say it’s just harmless medical waste and smoke alarms, the truth is that 5,000 tonnes of radioactive waste containing  dangerous radiation needs to be stored for the next few thousand years.

And, even though Krag jokes that the storage facility will be so safe that you could sit atop it for a year without receiving more than the normal annual exposure to radiation, there is no major population centre on the short-list. Which means that it would, in fact, be dangerous to build the storage facility under a city.

The five councils are all sparsely populated areas. This is one of our challenges, day-in and day-out. We want to attract new residents and businesses, and it’s best to do this by highlighting the things that make each of us stand apart. 

In Skive, residents can live a ‘Clean Life’: we’re on the waterfront, we have open spaces, we have good food and we have renewable energy. It should be obvious that having a radioactive waste dump here would make it difficult to market the area as ‘clean’.  

At the end of October, the five short-listed councils held a meeting about radioactive waste. We heard from residents, mayors and NGOs. We also got an overview of the technical details of a storage facility. 

One of the speakers was Johan Swahn, director of the Office for Nuclear Waste Review, a Swedish NGO. He warned us that Denmark’s plans to handle its waste would never be allowed in Sweden, which has far more experience with nuclear power. 

We in the five councils urge parliament to learn from other countries’ knowledge. We think Denmark should ask other countries to take our waste – countries more experienced at this sort of thing. The amount of waste Denmark has is minimal and it makes sense for us to seek help from experts. 

Some argue that the proper thing to do is to keep it here because we produced it here. But we wouldn’t be sending ordinary rubbish to a developing country. We’d be sending radioactive waste to an industrialised country. in 2011, the EU asked member states to cooperate in managing their radioactive waste, and a storage facility shared between countries is explicitly stated as a possibility. 

Going our own way is risky. At the meeting, radiation specialist Kaare Ulbak told us that the waste wouldn’t be dangerous once it was buried. The casks in which the waste is stored and the storage facility itself will, at some point, develop cracks. But when that happens, he said it will be difficult for the waste to seep into the ground. When? Difficult? Should that be meant to reasure us? 

The Society for Nature Conservation and Greenpeace advise against underground storage facilities. They both recommend storing radioactive waste above ground so it can be monitored. In the Netherlands, radioactive waste is being stored above ground for the next 100 years, or until someone develops a safer way to deal with it. If we follow their lead, we could keep our radioactive waste right where it is – at Risø. Safe and sound and above ground. 

We should clean up after ourselves, and we shouldn’t leave our radioactive waste for future generations to clean up. We in the five councils share that sentiment, but we don’t share the outdated view that burying something is the best way to dispose of it. When you do that, you only guarantee that, at some point, it will wind up in the water. Putting a problem out of sight may put it out of mind, but that doesn’t mean it has gone away. 

The author is the mayor of Skive council.