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16 March 2000 | Córdoba, Spain
International Conference on the Safety of Radioactive Waste Management

Statement at International Conference on the Safety of Radioactive Waste Management

by IAEA Director General Dr. Mohamed ElBaradei

I would like to begin by expressing appreciation to the Government of Spain, to the regional administration of Andalusia and to the municipal authorities of Córdoba for hosting our Conference in this beautiful and historic location. In particular, I would like to thank the three Spanish organizations that were closely involved in the organization of the Conference, namely the Nuclear Safety Council, the National Radioactive Waste Authority and the Electrical Industry Association. I would also like to express the IAEA’s appreciation to the European Commission and the OECD Nuclear Energy Agency for co-operating with us in organizing the Conference.

This Conference has covered many important and interesting topics and while I will not comment on all of them, I have selected a few on which I would like to make some remarks.

Firstly, I should emphasize that all types of radioactive waste need to be managed safely, whether they are permitted discharges of radioactive liquid and gaseous effluents to the environment from nuclear installations, radioactive residues that remain in the environment from past practices, such as uranium mining and milling, or solid radioactive waste ‘proper’. Although from time to time we need to concentrate attention on particular types of waste, we should not completely lose sight of this ‘holistic’ approach.

Having said this, I would like to focus on an issue that, as this conference has demonstrated, and as we have always known, deserves particular attention, namely high level waste disposal. (When I say high level waste, I include in this term spent fuel when it is considered as a waste).

At an international conference on geological disposal held by the US Government in Denver last year, I attempted to summarize the issue confronting us. Nuclear power is a clean and sustainable source of energy. And in view of the expected increase in electricity demand in the next few decades, we need to ensure that it continues to be a viable option. Yet nuclear energy development has reached a standstill in many regions of the world because of public concern about safety, primarily the safe management of high level wastes.

The first significant quantities of fuel were removed from civil reactors in the second half of the 1970s. Since nearly thirty years have elapsed for the heat and radioactivity of the high level waste to decay, countries with nuclear power programmes should by now be making progress towards solutions for dealing with high level wastes. The solution generally proposed is the use of deep geological repositories comprised of natural barriers and an engineered system designed to provide primary physical and chemical containment of the waste. It is the dominant opinion of specialists that such geological disposal can be implemented safely, economically and in an environmentally sound manner, using technologies that are already available.

Although it does not handle high level waste, the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in the USA, which began to receive waste last year, including waste containing longer lived radioactive components, represents an important milestone for geological disposal. Several countries, e.g. Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, Sweden and Switzerland, have developed or are developing underground research facilities, some of them located at potential deep repository sites. These facilities provide means for improving site characterization and investigation methodologies and for studying the processes and phenomena that are expected to occur in repositories. They are also being used for developing and proving underground engineering methods, thereby enhancing confidence in the technology.

However, it is increasingly clear that the technology for high level waste disposal, although an essential prerequisite, is not usually the major factor that is limiting the rate of progress. Lack of acceptance by the public — often manifested in the so-called "not in my backyard" syndrome — as well as by policy makers, continues to be the major hurdle in most countries. Although this lack of acceptance has a number of roots, the central issue is that of safety. And it is not just a question of achieving safety, but of convincing people that safety is achievable — building confidence that the technology really does provide safety. In my view, therefore, the future of high level waste disposal is, in effect, synonymous with the perceived safety of its disposal by the public.

So what can be done to make progress towards resolving the current impasse? One approach that is being pursued is to make wastes in geological repositories retrievable after emplacement, in case, for example, a better solution be developed in the future, concerns arise about the safety of the repository or a use for the materials arises. Retrievability is an important concept to some because it carries the message that the geological disposal concept is reversible and, therefore, it could increase confidence among policy makers and the public. Naturally retrievability should not compromise the safety of the repository or the security of the material disposed in it. A generic study is being carried out by the Agency to thoroughly examine this issue and we look forward to assisting the international community in developing a consensus view.

Other issues such as the difficulty in identifying suitable sites or the implications of the need to comply with complex regulatory requirements have to be, and are being, addressed too. But if we are convinced that what we have is safe enough, we should not use these as arguments to wait — and thereby allow the pressure on existing storage capacity to grow.

That said, there is increasing interest, for example, in several countries in the partitioning and transmutation of long lived radionuclides. The European Union, Japan, the Russian Federation and the USA have active programmes to investigate these technologies. The expectation is that they could reduce the amounts of waste requiring geological disposal. Although it is recognized that it would not be feasible to apply this technique to all types of waste, and there is as yet no clear indication that partitioning and transmutation can offer a practicable option, we should encourage R&D in this important area.

I am confident then that research and development will lead to continuous improvements in technology. But let me come back to the main question — of gaining acceptance by the public and policy makers. Simply restating our views and rationale seems unlikely to have any more success in the future than it has had in the past. We therefore need to be prepared to engage in open and constructive dialogue, re-examining our own logic in the light of the views of others. We need to obtain the confidence and trust of all those who are potentially affected by plans to dispose of waste. It is notable that in the countries where progress is being made towards final disposal, the directly affected communities have increasing confidence and trust in the responsible authorities. Such a situation is not easy to achieve. It requires determined and patient efforts on the part of the proponents, primarily in the country and region where the disposal site is to be located. While the procedures and methods adopted for geological disposal will continue to be country and programme specific, progress in repository development will proceed most effectively with international exchange of ideas and views. One Agency initiative in this area is the promotion of international collaboration in an existing underground research laboratory or facility that could, among other things, serve to demonstrate to the public the safety and the feasibility of the technology for conditioning, handling and isolating radioactive wastes.

The deliberations of this Conference reaffirm my view that we will not move forward on geological depositories without a consensus among all the interested parties. The proposals for a forum for discussion among those concerned should therefore be looked at in this context. My intention is to further pursue this concept.

This Conference has, of course, been concerned with much more than the geological disposal of high level waste. I have noted the discussion here on the principles governing the release from regulatory control of materials containing trace amounts of radioactivity. It is important for such principles to be agreed upon internationally in view of the substantial amounts of slightly contaminated materials which are becoming available as more and more nuclear power plants are decommissioned. If goods are to move freely between countries in this age of globalization of industries, such principles are doubly important. Good progress has already been made in this area by the Agency in concert with the NEA and EC but it remains a sensitive issue. The concerns now being expressed by, for example, the steel industry over the potential for their products to become contaminated as a result of these additions to the international steel pool must be allayed. To this end, discussions with representatives of the steel and metal scrap industries are taking place under the auspices of the UN Regional Economic Commission for Europe and the Agency with the intention of producing a code of practice on the subject.

The information presented in the session on the management of disused sealed sources showed that the number of incidents worldwide involving exposure to these sources is not declining. An IAEA assistance team has only recently returned from Thailand following the latest incident of this kind. This is an issue which the Agency is taking very seriously and, as you may know, it recently adopted a special Action Plan aimed at improving source control worldwide. Furthermore, last week in Vienna, the Agency hosted a meeting of technical and legal experts to undertake exploratory discussions on a possible international code of conduct on the safety of radiation sources and the security of radioactive material. I am pleased that good progress has been made and a draft code is being issued for formal comments by Member States. I understand that copies of the code have been made available at this Conference.

The safe management of radioactive wastes is a complex issue, but we cannot shirk our responsibility for dealing with it. While we must maintain a broad perspective covering the whole spectrum of wastes, an undeniable fact dominates the scene: the amounts of high level waste are steadily rising and decisive steps need to be taken to progress towards the siting, construction and operation of geological repositories. The actions must be taken in a national context. While international repositories are attractive in theory, we must recognize, as this Conference did, that it is a premature concept at this time. On the other hand, if national decisions on a repository programme are postponed, other decisions will need to be taken to ensure the provision of adequate interim storage capacity. While such storage requiring continuing surveillance may be considered as part of a waste management strategy, it cannot be regarded as a viable alternative to final disposal.

While it is important that all States assume their responsibility with regard to their own waste, and have clear and well defined programmes that are transparent to the public, a consensus is growing on the need for an international framework to deal with common problems. The IAEA can serve as a catalyst for such a framework on radioactive waste safety. I submit that the prerequisites for the full operation of this framework are as follows:

  • Firstly, the Joint Convention on the Safety of Spent Fuel Management and on the Safety of Radioactive Waste Management should come into force as soon as possible. The Convention establishes commonly shared safety objectives and sets out specific obligations of Contracting Parties aimed at achieving those objectives. When it enters into force, Contracting Parties will monitor adherence to these national obligations through an international process of peer review. The first Review Meeting of the Convention on Nuclear Safety last April demonstrated the significant role that this type of convention can play. We now have about half the ratifications needed for the Joint Convention to enter into force. I urge States that have not already done so to sign and ratify the Convention;
  • Secondly, a full set of international waste safety standards should be completed, particularly in relation to waste disposal. Although it is well established that repositories must be sited, designed, constructed and operated in accordance with national laws and regulations, public confidence in the adequacy of those laws and regulations will be greater if they are based on internationally accepted standards of safety. Unfortunately, geological disposal is perhaps the only area covered by the IAEA’s corpus of safety standards where the level of international consensus seems to have actually decreased in recent years. The Agency is taking a proactive approach towards rebuilding consensus on such standards;
  • Thirdly and finally, there must be international mechanisms to provide for the effective application of these standards. The Agency is planning to enhance the international peer review and advisory services it offers to its Member States on waste management issues, and assistance will continue to be given to developing countries in addressing their waste management questions. Co-operation in the implementation of state of the art technologies is another important mechanism. Priority areas include: the design and siting of repositories; demonstration of disposal technologies and characterization of sites in underground facilities; extended storage of high level waste; retrievability; and safety and performance assessments.

I would like to conclude by expressing my appreciation to the Government of Spain for hosting this important meeting and by congratulating all those who contributed to its success.