24th Jun 2021

Brussels keen for EU states to bury nuclear waste

  • A sign at the gates of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine which exploded in 1986 (Photo: Ratcliff, Trey)

Imminent EU proposals will call on member states to define national strategies for the storage of radioactive waste, emphasizing the advantages of deep burial underground.

"To ensure the implementation of internationally endorsed principles and requirements for spent fuel and radioactive waste management, the proposed Directive makes them legally binding and enforceable," says a draft copy of the proposal seen by EUobserver.

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The European Commission is set to publish the EU Directive on the Management of Spent Fuel and Radioactive Waste next week (3 November), building on last year's Nuclear Safety Directive (NSD) which is limited to storage facilities on the same site as nuclear installations. The NSD also fails to tackle the issue of final disposal.

Roughly half the EU's member states currently operate nuclear power stations, but all have nuclear waste, generated by a range of radioisotope applications in medicine, industry, research and education, as well has electricity production.

The commission wants this buried deep underground.

"It is broadly accepted at the technical level that deep geological disposal represents the safest and most sustainable option as the end point of the management of high level waste and spent fuel considered as waste," says the draft document. "Thus moving towards implementation of disposal should be pursued."

An explanatory memorandum attached to the draft directive bemoans member state inactivity in this area to date, warning that the buildup of above-ground waste stockpiles may pose environmental threats and become the target of a terrorist strike.

"Most countries have yet to take key decisions regarding the management of spent fuel and radioactive waste," says the document. "The consequences of the delay are that burdens will be passed on to future generations, both to implement disposal as well as maintaining interim storage options."

Greens unhappy

A consultation period prior to the directive's drafting has failed to satisfy the many divergent voices regarding nuclear waste disposal, with the European Parliament's Green group blasting the plans as insufficient.

In particular, the group said the commission's definition of nuclear waste was ill-defined, allowing companies to store the bi-product rather than dispose of it when future use is "foreseen".

"The possibility to store for an unlimited period of time very large quantities of wastes ... under hypothetical and highly unrealistic scenarios of future use is certainly not a 'sustainable' option," said the Green Co-President Rebecca Harms in a statement.

The group is also unhappy with the lack of detail on how to finance waste disposal, and has called for a proper assessment of the available options for storage - looking at long-term versus short-term possibilities.

EU competences regarding radioactive waste from civil nuclear activities fall under the framework of the 1957 Euratom Treaty, meaning the parliament only has a consultative role in approving the directive.

The imminent proposal comes at a time of hot debate on the future merits of electricity generation in several member states.

Demonstrators marched through the streets of Berlin on Monday to protest planned nuclear waste storage in northern Germany and the government's continued support of nuclear energy.

Chancellor Angela Merkel approved a law in September extending the use of Germany's nuclear power plants by an average of 12 years, a decision the majority of Germans opposed.

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