The Nuclear Sell Why One Swedish Town Welcomes a Waste Dump

Part 3: Nuclear Waste Controllable and Not Utterly Objectionable


It was a woman who pushed to sell the idea to people in Sweden that the highly toxic nuclear waste could be something controllable and not utterly objectionable.

Her name is Saida Laârouchi Engström, the second-in-command at SKB. She has a small corner office on the 8th floor of the company's headquarters. The sparse interior includes two pink orchids and a gray love seat. The room is deliberately modest -- as opposed to the sort of flashy, arrogant interior one might expect from the nuclear lobby.

Laârouchi Engström was born in Casablanca, studied engineering in Paris and came to Stockholm 30 years ago after falling in love with a Swede. She says that it took the company decades to get Östhammar's citizens to approve the plan for the permanent repository.

"When SKB began studying potential sites in the late '80s," she says, "we were not welcomed anywhere. No one wanted to talk to us." She remembers prime-time television appearances with screaming mothers and crying children. For the locals, nuclear power did not signify electricity. Instead, it conjured up images of Nagasaki and, later, Chernobyl.

'We Can't Force Ourselves on a Community'

Laârouchi Engström and a few other SKB employees decided that these perceptions had to be changed. "We can't force ourselves on a community," she says.

A dialogue had to be established, and Laârouchi Engström believed there were two conditions that needed to be met to achieve that: First, a community had to have the right geological conditions to be considered at all. Second, the community had to cooperate with SKB of its own accord.

Laârouchi Engström says that the company started focusing on Östhammar after determining that it was the most suitable of the eight sites it had tested. The bedrock beneath the town was 1.5 billion years old, making it among the oldest in Sweden. What's more, it was earthquake-proof, mostly dry and completely solid.

The plan calls for the nuclear waste to be stored in massive iron cylinders with hollow spaces for the fuel elements. The cylinders will be encased in a layer of copper five centimeters (2 inches) thick before being lowered into individual drilled holes that will then be filled with bentonite. The system is designed so that the cylinders can be retrieved, if necessary.

But this is just the proposal. If Östhammar's residents have doubts about the method, it will not be used, and other options will have to be examined.

"The community must have the option to bow out for a long time to come," Laârouchi Engström says. "Even if it has already said yes, it should be able to say at a later date: 'No, we don't want to continue with the project.'" Additional independent assessments will be prepared for at least three more years, and then the town of Östhammar will be polled once again to determine if it truly wants the permanent repository.

Not Always an Easy Sell

It is a costly process, paid for by every electricity customer in Sweden. For every kilowatt hour of electricity used, one öre (1/100th of a Swedish krona) is deposited into a fund for permanent waste storage. The government administers the fund and disburses the money to environmental organizations and disposal companies like SKB.

The plan calls for waste that will remain radioactive for at least the next 100,000 years to be deposited at the site over the next 40 years. This is no easy task, Laârouchi Engström says, and that's something the community has to be made aware of. After all, her company isn't coming to town to open a three-star restaurant. "You have to be honest," she says, "and lay all difficulties on the table."

It's important not to talk to citizens like a nuclear engineer, she adds, but like a person. It's important not to lecture them from a podium in a municipal building, she continues, but in their homes over coffee and cake and in places where people don't feel intimidated or afraid to ask potentially embarrassing questions. "The community determines how quickly we move forward," Laârouchi Engström says. "We don't."

In the late 1990s, 67 percent of the residents of a town called Tierp favored exploration to determine whether their region was suitable for a permanent repository. There were tests and discussions and, after three years, the town's residents ultimately decided there were more cons than pros. According to Laârouchi Engström, her company closed its offices in Tierp and left town a week later.

Laârouchi Engström says that only an open, transparent procedure, with all of its consequences laid bare, creates one of the most important raw materials: trust.

It all sounds pleasant and reasonable enough, but can she be believed? A woman working as a top executive for a company owned by Swedish nuclear power plant operators and the energy giants Vattenfall and E.on? A woman whose main job is to finally find a place -- after 30 years of searching -- where the toxic waste can be buried? A woman who needs consensus and is a brilliant speaker?

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