The small Eastern-European nation of Slovakia, wedged between Poland and Hungary, has growing ambitions to become a regional hub for nuclear waste processing.
A country of only five million, Slovakia has two nuclear power plants that produce over 55 percent of the country’s electricity. Both power plants, one in Jaslovské Bohunice, the other in Mochovce, are undergoing lengthy modernization processes. Old reactors have been shut down due to pressure from other EU countries fearing that the Soviet-era technology was not up to current safety standards, while new ones are being built with foreign help, notably with capital from the Italian company Enel.
Spent fuel from the decommissioned reactors, as well as from ones still operational, is being processed in a new processing plant that is part of the Jaslovské Bohunice complex. Furthermore, the management of the state-owned power station is developing plans to expand its waste-processing capacity to enable it to accept radioactive material from abroad that could provide much-needed financial resources to the state coffers.
The plans have, however, have been met with resistance from local residents and environmental groups that fear that polluted vapors from the plant would have a negative effect on the local environment.
The plant, being only 65 kilometers from the capital Bratislava, is also dividing opinions within the country’s political establishment. Before the February 2020 parliamentary elections, virtually all opposition parties were vehemently against the expansion of nuclear waste capacities as the importation of foreign nuclear waste to the country is clearly unpopular among voters. Since the change in government, Prime Minister Igor Matovič’s coalition members seem to have had a change of mind with regards to the issue and are exploring ways to sell their plans to voters without losing face.
The ace up their sleeve seems to be the argument that after processing, the nuclear waste does not remain in Slovakia, but is subsequently returned to its country of origin. The company responsible for running the reprocessing plant, Javys, has already imported approximately 50 tons of nuclear waste from Italy.
According to the company’s website, the waste comes in liquid form in special containers, this then goes through a process of evaporation where water is removed from the substance and solidified. The final product is then compressed and shipped back to its country of origin, where the storage of this solid compressed matter is easier, safer and therefore cheaper than that of the original radioactive liquid.
Although strict measures have been taken to make sure that the processing does not have any side effects for the environment and communities near the power plant, locals are concerned that through the process of evaporation, radioactive trace elements can escape to the environment, notably towards local settlements and fields surrounding the processing plant.
There is an enormous global demand for nuclear waste-processing and storage, hence this is a potentially lucrative business for the government-owned energy company. The Italian contract alone, signed in 2015, is reportedly worth €37 million.
The sticking point is though that there are no extensive studies, nor real-world experience, which demonstrate how much profit could potentially be generated from the industry, as expanding the processing plant and the process of waste-compression both require an enormous amount of investment that will ultimately have to come from taxpayers.
The fact remains that with rising demand for energy and electricity, together with the global drive for carbon-neutral sources, nuclear power will remain a tempting solution for governments trying to move away from fossil fuels. Lessons have been learned from Germany’s rushed move away from nuclear power towards ecologically sustainable energy generation, which had resulted in the reopening of polluting coal mines and the need to import energy from France, that is incidentally generated in French nuclear power stations.