For the past 19 years, South Korea has been working to site a facility capable of storing low and intermediate level radioactive waste materials. On 2 November 2005, the South Korean government announced that Gyeongju, an ancient city that once served as the capitall of the Silla Kingdom, had won.
The waste products that the Gyeongju facility will store are created in nuclear power plants, nuclear medical facilities and industrial facilities using nuclear materials in measurement and processing. The needed facility is similar to the Barnwell, South Carolina facility owned by the state of South Carolina and managed by Chem-Nuclear, a subsidiary of Waste Management.
The process of selecting a low and intermediate level radioactive waste storage site has been contentious in South Korea, with well organized opposition to most proposed sites. However, there has been a certain amount of interest in the employment and development opportunities that come with a willingness to perform a necessary, but potentially unpopular, task. In the US small, underdeveloped towns often lobby hard to host state prison facilities, for example.
The South Korean government decided to capitalize on the expressed interest in development opportunities and set up a first of a kind referendum that allowed various regions, apparently already preselected for having the required space and appropriate geology for a low level waste disposal facility, to hold a vote. Of the four participating regions, the one with the largest portion of favorable votes would be awarded the right to host the facility.
In order to be considered the winner, the region had to also achieve a voter turnout above a specified minium level. Of the eligible voters in the Gyeongju area, 70.8% turned out to vote and 89.5% of the voters were in favor of the plan.
Gyeongju will receive a special state subsidy of 300 Billion won ($288 Million). The disposal fees for the site are expected to be approximately 8.5 billion won ($8 Million) per year. In addition, the area will have an increased opportunity to compete for other nuclear related projects.
As one headlline described, “Locals rejoice in Gyeongju’s selection for nuclear dump”.
One more thought – South Korea currently operates 20 large power reactors. The country has been seeking to site a facility for almost 20 years and all of its operating facilities have been required to hold their waste on station during that time. Though I have never visited a South Korean nuclear power plant, I am certain that none of them are inundated with the waste products. Even when considering materials like coveralls, gloves, filters, isolation boundaries, sampling materials, etc. nuclear plants simply do not generate a large volume of radioactive waste materials. I have personally carried three months worth of such materials from a small plant in a bag smaller than my kitchen trash.
In the US, all 103 power plants are currently served with just two operating sites, the one mentioned above in South Carolina and a similar one in Richland, Washington. Storing nuclear power plant waste materials is profitable, but it is not a large industry.