22nd Oct 2016

EU nuclear waste proposals include export ban

  • 14 EU states currently have nuclear power plants (Photo: Bigod)

New European Commission proposals will require EU member states to bury their radioactive waste deep underground, with overseas exports of the toxic byproduct also set to be banned.

The draft plans put forward by the EU executive on Wednesday (3 November) could pose a problem for countries that lack the suitable geological substrate for underground burial, while the export ban to non-EU countries may also run into government opposition.

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EU energy commissioner Guenther Oettinger defended the draft rules as a necessary measure to enforce International Atomic Energy standards. "If an accident happens in one country, it can have devastating effects also in others," he told journalists in Brussels.

He added he was confident that member states would adopt the plans, despite former rejections of similar legislation.

"Today the acceptance is much higher than in the past," he said. "We don't want to export nuclear waste to third countries, frequently with lower safety standards. That cheap solution is out of the question."

Russia is one country that stands to lose from the new arrangement, if it gets the go-ahead from EU member states, with the importing of nuclear waste followed by burial in Siberia currently a lucrative business. A number of African countries have also expressed an interest in developing similar schemes.

EU exports are significantly down on earlier years however, with only Bulgaria still exporting spent fuel to Russia for reprocessing, an EU official said.

The new rules, whose legal basis is the 1957 Euratom treaty, will compel national governments to present detailed programmes within four years of their adoption, indicating when, where and how they will construct and manage final repositories for high-level spent fuel and radioactive waste.

While the EU currently has 143 nuclear power plants in 14 of the its 27 member states, no final repositories exist for the roughly 7,000 cubic meters of high-level waste produced each year. At present, only France, Sweden and Finland have plans to build the secure final resting places for the waste.

As a result, the majority of the toxic substance is kept in interim storages.

"Each member state will have its own timetable ... because of different appeal procedures," Mr Oettinger said, explaining why no fixed deadline for the building of the repositories is to be set.

Using another EU country's repository may also be an option. "The geological criteria we are setting may not exist in a particular member state, especially a small one, so we want co-operation [between states]," said the German politician, reserving the right to come forward with new draft rules in a few years time.

Environmental group Greenpeace slammed the new proposals, saying the commission was falsely exaggerating the safety of deep geological storage to support its nuclear energy agenda.

"This proposal is little more than a PR exercise to try and persuade Europeans that nuclear waste can be dealt with," said Greenpeace campaigner Jan Haverkamp in a statement. "There are gaps in the science and no [safe] disposal site currently exists, yet the Commission is claiming this is a proven method."

Mr Oettinger rebuffed the suggestion: "I've relied on the scientific experts," he said. "Renewable energy, not nuclear, is going to be the growth area in the future."


A world without waste

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