Feature Stories

No Time to Waste: Demonstrating Solutions

Even before the Earth Summit in 1992 spawned the bywords "sustainable development", environmental issues stood high on the global agenda. But the Summit in Rio de Janeiro signalled a rebirth, a renewed commitment, and rising public expectations of what needs to be done. Governments there adopted an action plan that engages governments, organizations, and citizens alike to work closer together and achieve sustainable solutions to common problems.

Of the nearly 40 major issues singled out for priority action, those related to hazardous wastes received particular attention. For issues concerning radioactive wastes, the IAEA was recognized as the world's leading agency, and it has moved ahead with its Member States and partner organizations to define and activate the next stages of international cooperation. As IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei noted recently, the main goal is to protect public health, safety, and the environment in which we live.

Important steps have been taken in recent years, and others are imminent. They include the outcomes of major international conferences that reconfirmed that technologies exist for safely disposing of radioactive wastes and that governments are committed to demonstrating disposal in an environmentally sound manner. Helping to point the way forward was the opening in March 1999 of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in the United States -- the world's first geological repository for types of radioactive waste that must be safely contained and isolated for centuries.

As importantly, consensus is building to strengthen the international framework on the safety of radioactive waste management -- through the development and application of international waste safety standards; the adherence by States to international legal conventions; the transfer of proven waste technologies; and greater dialogue with civil society. As it unfolds, the framework should help to address the needs and requirements of the public, policymakers, and other interested "stakeholders" in the process of deciding complex issues of radioactive waste management. These issues go beyond the peaceful uses of nuclear energy - which are relatively minor sources of radioactive waste in the world - but extend to Nature's own radioactive processes and the legacy left from decades of nuclear-weapons production and testing during the Cold War period.

In September 2000, the IAEA convened a Scientific Forum on Radioactive Waste Management that brought together experts and policymakers, seek to broaden the dialogue on major issues shaping the international agenda, and share experience that will help countries put into place sustainable solutions that can stand the test of time.