South Korea is now trying to decide what to do with its spent nuclear fuel, but French experts here say there really is only one option not only for South Korea but any country that produces used nuclear fuel -- deep underground burial of the highly radioactive material.
France's search for ways to safely manage spent nuclear fuel began in 1991, when it launched research on three methods of nuclear waste disposal, according to Audrey Guillemenet, a spokeswoman for the Meuse Haute-Marne Center of France's National Radioactive Waste Management Agency (ANDRA), who met with reporters on Friday.
The possibilities included geological disposal and neutralization of toxic nuclides via separation and transformation as permanent ways to dispose of nuclear waste. The third proposed method was interim storage of high-level radioactive waste.
Guillemenet said that at least for France, 15 years of research has proven that geological disposal was the best solution. Separate research has shown that neutralization of nuclides cannot be applied to all radioactive materials and that an interim repository simply could not be a permanent solution.
She said that most of the other countries that use nuclear power, including the United States, have reached a similar conclusion.
Whether the same applies to South Korea, however, remains to be seen.
South Korea is now going through what France did more than 20 years earlier -- trying to decide how to dispose of its nuclear spent fuel - but a public debate led by the Public Engagement Commission on Spent Nuclear Fuel Management is facing stiff public controversy. It is accused of having set its policies and feigning a public debate only as a formality.
Nuclear experts say the controversy is inevitable because all states that use nuclear energy must, sooner or later, find ways to permanently dispose of their spent nuclear fuel, and there is really only one viable solution.
They estimate that it will take up to 300,000 years for the radiation level of spent nuclear fuel to be reduced to that of natural uranium, meaning that such nuclear waste must be isolated from residents for the duration.
"It has been over 30 years since South Korea began operating nuclear reactors, but it has yet to have any policy on spent nuclear fuel," Cho Seong-kyung, a spokeswoman for the PECOS, said in her talks with reporters at the ANDRA research center in Bure, also the proposed site of what will be France's first deep underground repository.
The urgency for a permanent solution for spent nuclear fuel can also be seen in the fact that South Korea's interim storage pools are fast running out of room, with some of them expected to reach their full capacity in 2016, according to officials from the country's energy ministry.
South Korea operates 23 nuclear reactors, the world's fifth-largest number, that generate about 30 percent of the country's overall electricity demand, along with 750 tons of spent nuclear fuel per year.
Cho said the most urgent issue was to begin developing necessary technologies, which France did more than 20 years ago.
"Basically, we need technologies for the transportation and storage of spent nuclear fuel. But what we need the most are technologies for disposal," she said.
"Technologies for disposal require at least 30 years of research, and so it will not be early even if we started right now." (Yonhap)