By Roberta Rampton
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Governments could take pointers from Sweden and Finland when trying to find places to store the world's growing pile of radioactive waste from nuclear power plants, a group of arms control experts said on Friday.
Top-down government directives about arbitrarily picking nuclear waste dumps have inevitably failed, such as the U.S. law that mandated Nevada's Yucca Mountain to hold waste, said a new study from the International Panel on Fissile Materials.
The world has struggled with what to do about nuclear waste for decades, but the disaster at Japan's Fukushima Daiichi plant brought fresh attention to the dilemma.
In Finland and Sweden, two communities next to nuclear plants agreed to plans for building permanent waste storage sites deep underground, the report said. It also noted that Carlsbad, New Mexico, also agreed to host a defense-related waste storage site.
The larger Yucca Mountain project was canceled by the Obama administration due to opposition in the state, but many in Congress are still fighting to revive it.
"As a result of initial failures, several countries have sought to develop a more consultative site selection process in which local communities determine whether they wish to be included in site assessments," said the study, edited by a team from Princeton University with contributions from academics and analysts from around the world.
A U.S. "blue ribbon" panel of experts visited Finland and Sweden as it looked for alternatives to Yucca.
STORAGE POOLS HOLD RISK
By the end of 2009, about 240,000 metric tones of spent nuclear fuel was stored around the world, mostly in pools next to nuclear plants, the report said.
The largest single portion -- 64,500 metric tones -- was in the United States.
If water in the pools fails to keep rods from overheating -- as happened after the Fukushima plant lost all power -- radiation can be released.
"This risk has been aggravated by reactor operators packing the spent fuel more closely together in the pools as a way to store greater quantities of spent fuel in each pool," the report said.
The risk could be lowered if more material was moved into dry casks, it said.
But eventually, experts agree, the waste needs to be moved into underground repositories where the surrounding rock, clay or salt creates a barrier for radioactivity.
"The long-term hazards from the radiotoxicity of the spent fuel require that it be sequestered from the surface environment for at least hundreds of thousands of years," the report said.
(Editing by Jim Marshall)