We've all seen the headlines – the nuclear accident at Japan's Fukushima plant may rival the 1986 nuclear disaster at Chernobyl.
It is a multi-pronged nuclear problem at the tsunami-stricken site. Some of the gravest dangers there involve decades worth of spent fuel rods crammed into cooling tanks. Each fuel rod is packed with fatal levels of radioactive isotopes, including several types of plutonium.
This mess serves to expose just how far the world is from finding a permanent solution for the tens of thousands of tons of high-level radioactive waste being stored in temporary facilities. No country yet has come up with the right solution.
Japan itself has long sought to reprocess its nuclear waste into mixed plutonium-uranium fuel, known as MOX. This is a fuel that could be fed back into reactors.
The Japanese opted for this type of nuclear waste disposal because of their geography. The country's location on the so-called 'Pacific Ring of Fire' makes it very vulnerable to earthquakes. This is turn makes it a bad idea to try to bury nuclear waste underground.
But the Japanese plan has suffered from accidents and delays.
In 1999, two workers at a reprocessing plant in Tokai were killed when they mistakenly mixed buckets of uranium in an unprotected tank. This caused a nuclear chain reaction that spread radiation throughout the plant.
A second reprocessing plant in Rokkasho is still not fully operational 17 years after construction began.
The US Solution
The United States has not had much better luck than Japan at coming up with a more permanent solution for nuclear waste.
It already has 62,500 metric tons of high-level nuclear waste stored in dozens of locations around the country. And according to the Nuclear Energy Institute, it producers 2,300 tons more of nuclear waste annually.
The US does have the world's only operating deep level repository for nuclear waste. But the facility in New Mexico only accepts waste from military weapons research and production.
This means that nuclear waste from civilian operations have no permanent place for storage. Some of this nuclear waste is stored in pools such as those at Fukushima. Other such waste is stored in steel containers using a method called dry cask storage.
Billions of dollars were spent planning a permanent repository for civil nuclear waste in Nevada. But the project was scrapped President Obama amid strong local opposition as NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) raised its head again in the United States.
The opponents of the Nevada facility claimed that there is no reason to worry. Until further research is done on a more permanent solution, waste can be “safely” stored for decades using dry cask storage or pools. In the light of the events at Fukushima, that position is almost laughable now.
The search for a more permanent solution for nuclear waste disposal takes us across the Atlantic to Europe. Here we find perhaps the country furthest along the road to a solution: Sweden.
After three decades of planning and 15 years spent trying to win local support, a formal application was submitted recently to build a permanent repository for high-level nuclear waste.
If approved, the plan would make Sweden the first country to start burying highly toxic, spent nuclear fuel until it no longer poses a threat to life. A process, mind you, that can take at least 100,000 years.
The plan does still need to be approved by the Swedish Radiation Safety Authority. If approved, the facility will be built at Osthammar, a small town two hours north of Stockholm, near Sweden's existing low-level nuclear waste disposal site.
Construction is due to start in 2015 and the plant is to go operational in 2020. A 5 kilometer ramp will connect 60 kilometers of of tunnels covering 4 square kilometers. The construction and operating cost for the facility is expected to be about $3.8 billion.
The repository will sit 500 meters below the surface in granite bedrock that is nearly 2 billion years old, using a clay buffer for protection.
The spent fuel rods themselves will be put into copper canisters, with 12 fuel assemblies per each canister. It is expected the facility will have the capacity for 6,000 such copper canisters.
The entire future of the nuclear industry may depend on how successful the Swedish solution is for burying nuclear waste. Needless to say, there will be many keen observers around the world with their focus on the happenings in the years ahead in that small Swedish town of Osthammar.