No one wants waste dumped in the backyard, whether thrown on the ground, channelled into rivers and seas, or fumed into the air. But things can look different when the waste is tightly sealed, then isolated deep inside the earth, in a modern engineered facility that's safe, clean, well run, and a job booster. That's been the case in Carlsbad, New Mexico, home of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP). Most residents there support the site, which holds radioactive wastes generated by the US defense industry.
In July 2002, an underground site for highly radioactive wastes - at Yucca Mountain in Nevada - gained final legislative approval from the US Senate. (Read the story). In May 2001, the Finnish Parliament ratified the Government's decision "in principle" to approve a final repository for spent fuel in a cavern near the nuclear power plants at Olkiluoto.Construction is scheduled to start in 2011, with operation scheduled to commence ten years later.
Public support of radwaste solutions -- through involvement in the decision-making process -- is fundamental to progress in the United States, Finland, and other countries. In many countries, a key issue is the final disposal of highly radioactive wastes in geological repositories that must be safely isolated for thousands of years. WIPP may point the way forward.
Several States are moving ahead in areas of safety assessment and site investigations toward the ultimate permanent disposal of highly radioactive wastes. Research at underground laboratories in different kinds of geological formations has been recorded in ten countries, including Belgium, Canada, Italy, Japan, and Germany.
Progress has been reported by the Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA) of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), which in 1998 updated developments in 17 countries, including Canada, Finland, France, Germany, Japan, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom. The NEA has issued a report, Geological Disposal of Radioactive Waste in Perspective, that updates progress in its member countries. Additionally, ongoing research is tracked by the IAEA through its Waste Research Abstracts Programme and the Agency recently has issued Radioactive Waste Management Profiles, drawing upon data reported by its Member States. The Agency's Waste Management Database provides detailed information about national programmes and plans, and its Marine Environment Laboratory in Monaco carries out projects for monitoring radioactivity in seas.
Countries also are working more closely together to share experience for radwastes that can be safely managed without deep geological disposal -- such low-level radioactive waste is generated from nuclear electricity generation and nuclear applications in fields of medicine, research, industry, and agriculture. These wastes are prepared and packaged for safe disposal in specially designed facilities, and efforts aim to more widely share acquired experience with different types of proven approaches. Other activities for the transfer of technology and expertise include an IAEA Model Project involving more than 50 countries. It is directed at upgrading national infrastructures and promoting application of international safety standards for nuclear, radiation, waste, and transport safety, and an Action Plan is targeting the proper handling and control of commercial radiation sources.
States additionally are being asked to support radwaste solutions arising from nuclear weapons production and testing during the Cold War period. Receiving particular attention is international cooperation with the Russian Federation, and more than 200 projects are receiving priority through a Contact Expert Group. They include projects related to safely decommissioning nuclear submarines and the radioactive fuel they contain. Radioactive residues from past nuclear weapons testing is another concern in some countries, and the IAEA has conducted radiological assessments at the request of its Member States, for example, of the Bikini Atoll, Semipalatinsk, and the Mururoa and Fangataufa Atolls.
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