Communication for Sustainable Development

Call for nuclear waste to be buried underground

Commission proposal calls for deep geological storage of waste radioactive material.
The European Commission will urge member states to bury their radioactive waste deep underground as the safest way to dispose of spent fuel, according to a leaked proposal. The plans have the approval of the nuclear industry, but have been condemned by anti-nuclear campaigners.

In a draft directive on nuclear waste that will be published next week (3 November), the Commission will say that deep geological storage is “the safest and most sustainable” option for disposing of spent fuel and the other dangerous nuclear waste that must be kept away from humans for tens of thousands of years.

Finland, France and Sweden plan to have underground repositories open for business between 2020 and 2025, and the Commission hopes other national governments will follow suit.

Currently, the 50,000 cubic metres of radioactive waste produced in the EU each year are stored in special buildings above ground. Lower-grade nuclear waste, such as machinery from de-commissioned reactors, used equipment and residues, can already be stored underground.

The Commission believes that a longer-term answer must be found to avoid burdening future generations with radioactive waste, and to reduce risks, either from terrorist attacks or from governments running out of money to maintain their facilities.

“Most countries have yet to take key decisions regarding the management of spent fuel and radioactive waste,” states a draft of the directive seen by European Voice. “The consequences of the delay are that burdens will be passed on to future generations.”

Managing waste

Drawn up by Günther Oettinger, the European commissioner for energy, the proposals set out EU-wide rules for managing the most dangerous nuclear waste. National governments would be obliged to draw up a programme for disposing of spent fuel and radioactive waste, and put in place independent regulators to oversee the system.

Although deep geological storage would not be mandatory, the Commission argues that this option “should be pursued” by member states. Waste would be buried hundreds of metres underground in specially-excavated “cells” in the rock. Exact depths would vary according to geology.

Greenpeace, the environmental campaign group, accused the Commission of ignoring vital questions about underground storage. “The European Commission is pushing for deep geological disposal against a lot of problems that need to be resolved,” said Jan Haverkamp, EU energy campaigner at Greenpeace. There are “major questions” about whether the containers will last, whether the rock will behave in line with scientists' expectations and the possibility of future human interference, he said, adding: “The Commission has wiped these questions off the table and acts like they don't exist.”

The nuclear industry argues that deep geological storage has been proven by 30 years of research. “Final disposal is recognised as the safest option because the main part of the safety is ensured by the rock formation. It is a proven technology that can protect humans and the environment in the very, very long term,” said Christian Taillebois, director of external relations at the European Atomic Forum (Foratom), which represents Europe's nuclear industry. “We have to demonstrate that there is a safe way to manage nuclear activities,” he added

In 2008 the Nuclear Energy Agency, a special agency within the Organisation on Economic Co-operation and Development, the rich-country think-tank, published a declaration stating that deep geological storage was “technically feasible” and that waste could be stored without risk from human tampering or natural phenomena, such as earthquakes.

Nuclear safety has been part of the European project ever since the European Atomic Treaty (Eurotom) was signed in 1957. But in recent years, the EU has acquired new powers; a new law introducing EU-wide rules on nuclear safety was agreed last year.

The draft directive on nuclear waste has high-level political backing and was flagged up in March by José Manuel Barroso, the Commission president.

Currently, 14 member states have nuclear power stations, while two others (Italy and Lithuania) are in the process of decommissioning nuclear plants.

Haverkamp accused the Commission of a pro-nuclear bias, saying: “The Commission wants to give the impression that nuclear waste is being taken care of in the hope that people change their mind about nuclear power.”

A spokeswoman for Oettinger dismissed this charge, saying: “The mix of energy is entirely national policy. We do not push nuclear.” She pointed out that the proposal applied to nuclear waste being generated from medical and industrial processes in all member states, not just waste from power plants. “Whether you are in favour of nuclear energy or against, it is always in your interests that it is stored absolutely safely.”

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