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Situation in 1999 and prospects for radioactive waste management
The Commission gives its analysis of the radioactive waste situation in the European Union following the implementation of the Community action plan for 1980-1999.
Communication and fourth report from the Commission of 11 January 1999 on the present situation and prospects for radioactive waste management in the European Union [COM(98) 799 final - Not published in the Official Journal].
Compared with other types of industrial waste, quantities of radioactive waste are very low. Some of this waste, in particular high-level radioactive waste from nuclear power production, remains hazardous for thousands of years. This high-level radioactive waste therefore has to be carefully controlled and disposed of by providing barriers delaying return of radio isotopes to the biosphere.
Radioactive waste is generally understood as material for which no further use is foreseen and which has been managed in a system of reporting, authorisation and control as specified in international recommendations, or Community or national legislation.
Processes and techniques used in the management of all categories of radioactive waste have been developed to a point where they can be applied on an industrial scale. The only aspect yet to be put into practice is the disposal of high-level heat-generating waste. Though its technical feasibility has been demonstrated in experimental research, its realisation is delayed in some Member States owing to difficulties in licensing and problems of public perception.
In its communication "a Community strategy for radioactive waste management" of 2 March 1994 [COM(94) 66 final], the Commission formulated a strategy oriented towards public safety and environmental protection.
Its approach is one of harmonisation at Community level, where practicable, of radioactive waste management principles and practices to ensure an equivalent and acceptable level of safety throughout the European Union.
The strategy is based on a comprehensive medium to long-term programme to be implemented by steps. It concentrates on a number of main elements: the definition and classification of radioactive waste; the minimisation of waste; the transport, treatment and disposal of waste; public information; and the financing of radioactive waste management.
All Member States produce radioactive waste, even if the quantities needing long-term storage and disposal are very small in countries without nuclear energy production capacity.
The production of radioactive waste has however diminished considerably compared with the volumes predicted for certain countries. The main reason is that the construction of new power plants has been halted in most Member States as a consequence of policy revisions following the Three Mile Island accident in 1979 and the Chernobyl accident in 1986. Another reason is that a number of first generation and demonstration power plants have been definitively shut down.
Radioactive waste results from four types of activity:
- nuclear electricity generation;
- the operation of research reactors;
- the use of radiation and radioactive material in medicine, agriculture, industry and research;
- processing of material containing natural radionuclides.
Most radionuclides used in medicine are very short-lived. The waste is therefore stored to allow decay and then released when concentrations fall below limits defined in the operating licence of the individual hospital or interim storage facility. However, spent sealed sources, which are of particular radiological concern, are collected and stored at a central facility.
By far the greatest quantities of radioactive waste are produced in the nuclear fuel cycle, where the largest volumes arise in uranium mining and milling and in uranium enrichment. Waste containing enhanced concentrations of natural radionuclides is not normally registered as radioactive waste but it may, if badly managed, present an environmental and health risk.
The report contains detailed information on the waste arising from the first three activities in five year periods up to year 2020 for all Member States, and general information on the processing of material (the figures take into account only facilities already in operation, under construction or firmly committed).
The report distinguishes between:
- low and intermediate-level waste (non-heat-generating) of both short (up to 30 years) and long half-life;
- high level waste, which includes vitrified residues from reprocessing and conditioned spent fuel declared as being radioactive waste.
Storage of radioactive waste has become a routine matter. Those Member States with no nuclear power production capacity have abandoned, for the time being at least, plans for disposal of their radioactive waste. Three countries (Italy, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom) have decided to postpone disposal of their high-level waste for periods ranging from at least 50 to possibly more than 100 years.
Radioactive waste disposal has been practised by all Member States with a nuclear power plant programme, either by ocean disposal, deep geological disposal or surface and shallow disposal.
Funding for research is now devoted mainly to fundamental research, such as advanced radionuclide separation techniques and transmutation of long-lived radionuclides. All Member States with a nuclear power programme have set up agencies responsible for all or part of the management of radioactive waste, under the control of the safety authorities.
As regards legislation, safety standards govern radiation protection, control of shipments of radioactive material and safeguards for fissile material. Moreover, environmental impact assessments are required for radioactive waste disposal installations as laid down in Directive 85/337/EEC, as amended by Directive 97/11/EC.
At the global level, the International Convention on the safety of spent fuel management and the safety of radioactive waste management has been open for signature by contracting parties since September 1997 (by the end of February 1998, eleven Member States had signed this Convention: Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, Sweden and the United Kingdom).
The Commission recommends that particular attention be paid to certain actions:
- Member States should be encouraged to continue their activities concerning the siting, construction, operation and closure of high-level waste repositories in deep clay, granite or salt formations;
- as far as possible, national safety authorities should be included in preparatory work prior to requests for licensing of such repositories;
- a common set of rules should be drawn up at Community level for the clearance, either conditional or unconditional, of contaminated materials;
- the European Union should aim at self-sufficiency in matters of radioactive waste management, even if transfer of waste to countries outside the Union is not excluded;
- research and development should continue with the aim of improving data, models and concepts relating to long-term safety of disposal of long-life waste.