Coming Full Circle
GeoMelt Vitrification Technology. Soil treatment at the Maralinga test site in Australia. (Photo: D.F. Osborne/Linkforce Pty Ltd.)
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The IAEA works to protect people and the environment from harmful radiation exposure. In the past, large and small sites have been radiologically contaminated by industrial activities, mining, accidents and nuclear weapons development. In an often long-term, costly "remediation" process, the radioactive contaminants are removed, immobilized or isolated. Remediation aims to prevent the radioactive contaminants´ movement into waterways, the food chain or air, thus reducing or preventing human exposure to radiation now and in the future.
When responsible management applies best practices, there should be little or no need for remediation.
The best remediation strategy is prevention, which begins with strong national legislation, and independent regulatory institutions. The resulting safety culture can ensure that people and the environment are protected from radioactive contamination. The IAEA helps establish and strengthen legal and institutional frameworks by developing and issuing safety standards.
"We work together with the Member States, the scientific community and other organizations in preparing and developing safety standards and guidelines on how to remediate sites and handle the resulting waste safely," says Magnus Vesterlind, head of the IAEA´s Waste and Environmental Safety section.
Radioactive contamination knows no borders, thus globally effective management is essential. As the first global legal instrument of its kind, the Joint Convention on the Safety of Spent Fuel Management and on the Safety of Radioactive Waste Management obligates the 57 countries that are party to the Joint Convention to establish "effective defenses against potential hazards" to people and the environment from the "harmful effects of ionizing radiation, now and in the future."
The IAEA´s experts support governments´ implementation of the Joint Convention, Vesterlind explains, "through peer review missions and advisory services to help them move ahead with remediation and strive for a harmonized approach to remediation."
"The laws, institutions and international legal agreements all serve to embed a safety culture," says Irena Mele, head of the IAEA´s Waste Technology Section.
To prevent new mistakes, "the IAEA is strongly promoting the lifecycle approach." In essence, nuclear activities have to be planned with the end in mind. "With each activity, with each project, we plan all the steps from beginning to end so that there will be no need for remediation at the end of the project. The activity is then implemented to avoid this step," Mele explains.
And as the interest in nuclear power rises, and the demand for uranium increases, newcomers will begin considering uranium mining. "We should help these newcomer countries to design and implement mining activities to make sure that remediation at the end will not be required," Mele advises.
When the entire nuclear life cycle is subject to regulation and oversight, waste products are handled responsibly, making remediation unnecessary. "Responsible management preserves resources for future generations, while it improves our lives and cuts costs today," summarizes Mele.
Contaminated Legacy Sites
The sources of contamination are well-known to Mele, "Due to many activities in the past, in many industries, we have sites that are radiologically contaminated. These activities include uranium mining and other industries that are dealing with naturally occurring radioactive materials. There are also some defence programmes that resulted in radiologically contaminated sites; in addition there have been radiological and nuclear accidents that have caused contamination. These sites may potentially affect the public´s health and the environment, therefore remediation of these sites is needed."
For many years, the IAEA has been helping countries remediate contaminated legacy sites, which are found in both developed and developing countries. Regardless of the sites´ history, they share many common causes.
Vesterlind, who studies these cases to prevent further legacies, says, "Proper attention was not paid to the environmental impact of these nuclear activities. It is a fact that there was a lack of laws and regulation for licensing these activities."
Regulating Legacy Sites
Legacy sites, by their nature, require high standards of regulatory supervision to ensure their responsible management. To help countries address these challenges, the IAEA in cooperation with the Norwegian Radiation Protection Authority launched the International Forum for Regulatory Support of Legacy Sites (RSLS) in October 2010. The International Forum brings together experienced regulators with those new to supervising legacy sites. This project supports the legacy sites´ effective regulation by promoting the use of the IAEA´s Safety Standards, as well as good international practices.
Central Asian Initiative
One of the world´s most challenging remediation projects is found in Central Asia at the uranium mining and milling legacy sites in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Radioactivity at these sites can find its way into food ingested by cattle and people - for instance, through well water that has been contaminated by the water run-off from the uranium mill tailings. Additionally, if these materials are not adequately controlled, they can contaminate building materials, thus exposing inhabitants to higher levels of radiation. Through the IAEA Technical Cooperation programme, assistance is being provided to Central Asian countries to assist with remediation of their uranium legacy.
"We work with the Central Asian Member States to help them develop national regulations based upon the IAEA safety standards. The European Commission has set aside EUR 3.5 million for remediation activities in Central Asia which was largely based upon a technical baseline document prepared by the IAEA," Vesterlind says.
The Chernobyl accident in April 1986 released vast amounts of radionuclides into the environment. The IAEA provides technical assistance on the remediation of agricultural land and technical leadership for funding organizations to ensure that projects will lead to substantive, predictable environmental improvement.
"The IAEA is heavily engaged in assessing remediation efforts in this region and also in the remediation of past and current radiological impacts from the accident. Through the Technical Cooperation programme, the IAEA has provided support exceeding US$ 14 million over the past 20 years," Vesterlind says.
Legacy sites are often a bundle of complex issues that demand effective resolution such as assessing the extent of the contamination, determining where contaminants pose risks for current and future populations, communicating with the public, as well as choosing the appropriate technologies and methods to stabilize and secure the sites. Networks of individuals engaged in remediation activities are one way to assemble the expertise and experience that countries confronting a remediation challenge will need to tackle the job.
The Network of Environmental Management and Remediation or ENVIRONET was established by the IAEA to provide planning and management expertise. The ENVIRONET network connects governments to the experts and the know-how they need to employ the best, proven practices in remediating radiologically contaminated sites. "We are strongly encouraging Member States to join ENVIRONET," Mele notes, "because they can gain experience through hands-on training and demonstration projects which they need to solve their own problems."
Faster, More Effective, Less Costly Remediation
Linking partners from research institutions, power utilities, regulatory bodies, operating organizations, universities, and consulting firms, ENVIRONET also serves as a resource for assessing remediation projects to be certain that the funds invested, the tools used and the methodology chosen will result in effective remediation.
"You´re always looking for ways to bring down the costs and do things more efficiently and effectively, communicate better with your stakeholders, including regulators as well as the general public. I think even the experienced countries are looking for ways to improve and share new tools and approaches. And, of course, the countries without that experience, they would benefit from the lessons learned. They don´t want to start from scratch," said ENVIRONET member Karen Smith from Argonne National Laboratory, USA.
The network´s Chair, Peter Booth, from the National Nuclear Laboratory, UK, described ENVIRONET as "a vehicle to bring people together. It´s a two-way process. It´s not just about people who in theory have more knowledge than others telling people what to do. It´s about people who have experiences, which may be positive or negative, and exchanging those experiences."
Note: The editor wishes to thank Wismut GmbH, Chemnitz, Germany, for providing the front-page banner photographs of the remediation work undertaken at the Ronneburg mine site in Germany. The photographs show the situation before 1991 (inset) and after remediation of the Lichtenberg open pit and surrounding areas in 2010.
-- The following IAEA staff members contributed to this article: Volodymyr Berkovskyy, Nuclear Safety; Russel Edge, Nuclear Safety; Sasha Henriques, Public Information; Peter Kaiser (editor), Public Information; Bruna Lecossois, Nuclear Energy; Horst Monken Fernandes, Nuclear Energy; Ruth Morgart, Nuclear Safety; Gerhard Proehl, Nuclear Safety; Rodolfo Quevenco, Public Information; John Rowat, Nuclear Safety; Giovanni Verlini, Public Information; Melanie Wong, Nuclear Safety
(Note to Media: We encourage you to republish these stories and kindly request attribution to the IAEA).