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Keeping It Safe

Spent Fuel and Radioactive Waste Management

Dukovany Nuclear Power Plant

Like any form of industrial activity, electricity production using nuclear power produces a waste byproduct.(Photo: D. Calma/IAEA)

Like any form of industrial activity, electricity production using nuclear power produces a waste by-product. For nuclear electricity generation, the spent fuel produced is highly radioactive and needs to be isolated, contained, stored and managed safely. The amount of spent fuel to be managed will continue to increase. As nuclear power generation expands, and as applications of nuclear science and technology continue to grow, so too have the volumes of radioactive wastes needing to be managed.

The volumes are not large when taken in a global context.

"Nuclear power historically produces less waste when compared with other conventional energy-generating sources of similar capacity," according to Gary Dyck, Head of the IAEA's Nuclear Fuel Cycle and Materials Section.

A typical, modern, light water reactor, for example, will probably produce about 20 tonnes of spent nuclear fuel in a year. In comparison, a coal-fired plant of the same size will emit up to 6 million tonnes of carbon dioxide directly into the atmosphere, in addition to other effluents the plant may produce.

"Having a small amount of waste that can be safely contained, isolated, managed and disposed of is actually an advantage that we get as a result of using nuclear power for electricity generation," Mr. Dyck said.

Nevertheless, its management is demanding because of radioactivity and its possible harmful effect on people and the environment.

"The IAEA has programmes to support Member States in all aspects of the nuclear fuel cycle, from mining for uranium to safe disposal of nuclear spent fuel," Mr. Dyck said.

An interview with Mr. Dyck on basic facts about the nuclear fuel cycle and disposal of spent fuel and radioactive waste is available here.

Establishing a Global Safety Regime

Promoting the safe management and disposal of radioactive waste has been a major cornerstone of the IAEA's work. It has fostered international co-operation in waste management since the Agency was established in 1957. The IAEA's programme on waste management reflects the diverse range of interests among its Member States, and activities are designed to benefit Member States regardless of their degree of sophistication in the uses of nuclear energy.

On the safety front, internationally-binding legal instruments and IAEA safety standards today cover activities throughout the entire nuclear fuel cycle, including disposal. They address the safety aspects of spent fuel and radioactive waste management and provide important guidance and points of reference for countries wanting to implement a spent fuel and radioactive waste management solution.

"These legal instruments and safety standards put emphasis on early establishment of policies governing the backend of the fuel cycle as well as the long-term management of spent fuel," Magnus Vesterlind, Head of the IAEA Waste and Environmental Safety Section, emphasized.

At the same time, the IAEA works with countries interested in developing concrete disposal solutions for radioactive waste. One area given particular focus is safety assessment - that is, developing methodologies to prove that the chosen solution is safe and sustainable for long periods of time.

But important hurdles remain in the implementation of safe, permanent disposal solutions for radioactive waste, particularly in the case of spent fuel and high-level waste. Several countries have already built infrastructures for managing radioactive waste and spent fuel, but no final solution for geological disposal of this type of waste has yet been implemented in any country. There are various reasons for this, ranging from inadequate human and technological resources to political will and public acceptance.

"It is quite a big step to go from research and development into actual implementation of spent fuel disposal on a large, industrial scale," Vesterlind pointed out. "In many instances, the biggest challenge is to find political and public support for the implementation."

An interview with Mr. Vesterlind on the safety challenges in spent fuel and radioactive waste management is available here.

Geological Disposal of Radioactive Waste

Regardless of the spent nuclear fuel strategy adopted - reprocessing or direct disposal - the spent fuel or high level waste from reprocessing will still need to be permanently disposed of at the end.

"The methods to dispose of high level waste and spent fuel have been developed," according to Irena Mele, Head of the IAEA Waste Technology Section, "and the international consensus is that it should be geological disposal."

Three countries - France, Finland, and Sweden - are doing pioneering work in establishing a solution for deep, geological disposal for high-level waste and progress has been positive.

"We expect that in about 10 years the first repositories will be really implemented," Mele said. "Between 2020 and 2025 we expect the first disposal facilities for spent fuel and high-level waste to be constructed and put into operation."

An interview with Ms. Mele on the technological aspects of the disposal of spent fuel and radioactive waste is available here.

Case of Finland

Finland is leading the march towards finding a permanent solution for geological disposal of high-level waste.

"We have successfully gained public acceptance for this project," said Tero Varjoranta, Director General of the Finnish Radiation and Nuclear Safety Authority (STUK). "We have also done safety assessments over the years which give no indication that it wouldn't be safe to build such a facility in Finland."

Finland is now looking at acquiring a construction license for its underground facilities and structures by the end of this year with a license for operation expected by 2020.

An interview with Mr. Varjoranta, where he talks at length about the milestones and challenges in Finland's waste management programme is available here.

Other IAEA Initiatives

Many IAEA Member States have smaller or less developed nuclear programmes, but still have a need to safely manage and dispose of their radioactive waste. In a majority of cases these are wastes resulting from non-power activities like agriculture, medicine, industry and research.

"The IAEA is providing assistance to Member States that want to develop consistent policies for managing radioactive waste. It is further helping them develop strategies on how to implement these policies," says Irena Mele.

The Agency has also established a variety of networks in different areas of nuclear waste management which are highly beneficial for Member States. The networks provide a forum for information exchange and dissemination and also enhance cooperation between experts in developed and less developed programmes.

"Transfer of knowledge, transfer of experience, transfer of technology is another area where the IAEA is very active," Mele emphasized.

Through this exchange, the IAEA is able to help those countries seeking assistance in the area of spent fuel and radioactive waste management.

-- By Rodolfo Quevenco, IAEA Division of Public Information

(Note to Media: We encourage you to republish these stories and kindly request attribution to the IAEA)