Geological Repositories: The Last Nuclear Frontier

Stockholm, Sweden

by IAEA Director General Dr. Mohamed ElBaradei

Stockholm, Sweden
International Conference on Geological Repositories: Political and Technical Progress,
(8-10 December 2003, Stockholm, Sweden)

Few issues play so central a role in the public acceptance of nuclear technologies as the management and disposal of spent fuel and radioactive waste. In the current climate, geological repositories have come to be viewed not as one option among many for completing the nuclear fuel cycle, but as the only sustainable solution achievable in the near term. But despite a longstanding agreement among experts that geological disposal can be safe, technologically feasible and environmentally sound, a large part of the general public remains skeptical. It is in this context that I would like to share a few of my views on the challenges we face and how the International Atomic Energy Agency hopes to help in furthering progress.

Building Public Confidence: A Key Challenge

Many IAEA Member States consider deep underground disposal in suitable geological media to be the preferred option for the long term management of radioactive waste — repositories designed with a combination of natural barriers and engineered systems to provide waste containment. During the past decade or so, geological disposal concepts have evolved considerably, enhancing our understanding of how deep geological systems will function over very long periods of time as well as our confidence in the safety of disposal. This progress is primarily due to the extensive work carried out in national programmes, often assisted and guided by the exchange of information at international forums such as this conference.

Since the 1999 Denver conference on geological repositories, a number of countries have made significant progress in the implementation of site selection programmes for deep repositories. Although, as expected, no geological repository for high level waste is yet in operation, repository projects in Finland, Sweden and the United States of America have advanced to a stage at which, technically speaking, decisions can be made to begin construction. In Europe, the European Commission is proposing a directive that would urge its Member States to decide on repository sites by 2008 and to have a site operational by 2018 — although it appears that some flexibility may be introduced into these deadlines.

Despite steady technological development, the greatest challenge to repository development is how to build confidence in geological disposal among a wider interested and concerned audience. Consequently, national programmes, as well as international efforts, must give increasing focus not only to the scientific and technical issues, but also to societal, political, legal and economic aspects — many of which are country specific — that influence public perceptions of the safety and feasibility of implementing the geological disposal concept. Some national programmes, such as that of Sweden, have chosen a staged approach to repository development, which allows more time and flexibility in decision making and increases public awareness of the implementation process. At recent IAEA conferences — such as the Córdoba conference on the Safety of Radioactive Waste Management in March 2000, and the Vienna conference on Issues and Trends in Radioactive Waste Management last December — the general consensus emerging from high level panel discussions is that confidence building is the key remaining issue to facilitate the decision making process in geological repository projects.

Current Issues: Extended Storage, Retrievability & Safeguards

Recent waste disposal discussions have witnessed the emergence of a number of new issues. In June, at another IAEA conference in Vienna on the Storage of Spent Fuel from Power Reactors, a number of Agency Member States announced that they are considering the extension of spent fuel storage times to 100 years and longer. This approach is emerging for various reasons, including: delays in repository disposal programmes; lack of resources; uncertainties about whether to consider spent fuel a waste or a resource; the lack of public acceptance of disposal; and the lack of political will for moving forward on repository siting and construction. If the new initiatives for ‘very long term storage’ persist, they will require more advanced storage technologies, new assessments of their safety implications, considerable extension of storage licences for existing facilities, and long term institutional frameworks. The latter factor — the need to maintain institutional controls — has long been considered a key safety issue with long term surface storage, because human interactions are inherently more vulnerable to failure than passive physical barriers, and institutional integrity is difficult to guarantee over the very long term.

Another identifiable trend is the increasing general acceptance of the idea that retrievability and reversibility should be built into repository designs, to increase flexibility by keeping options open for future societies, and to enable countries to make use of subsequent technical advances in waste management and materials technologies. However, there has been little research, and no experience, relevant to how such retrieval provisions would affect the design and development of geological repositories. Preliminary safety and security considerations would indicate that some potential retrieval provisions — such as delaying the placement of repository isolation barriers — could have negative impacts.

Geological repositories, after closure, are expected to achieve adequate long term safety without the need for reliance on continuing institutional controls. However, the need to meet IAEA safeguards requirements is likely to result in some long term monitoring and possibly other forms of institutional controls for disposal facilities, particularly those that contain spent fuel subject to safeguards. These controls must be sufficiently robust to address non-proliferation and security concerns, in a manner that enhances public confidence — and they must be adequate to ensure stability well into the future. The IAEA is currently developing site-specific safeguards requirements and long term surveillance and monitoring approaches.

International Co-Operation On Waste Management and Disposal Issues

While the procedures and methods adopted for geological disposal will continue to be country and programme specific, it is clear that international co-operation — on exchange of information, establishment of safety standards and conventions and the development of new technological approaches — can substantially enhance the effectiveness of repository development.

The IAEA continues to revise its body of safety standards and to develop new standards in needed areas. Of particular relevance to this meeting are the requirements covering “Geological Disposal of Radioactive Waste”, designed to ensure that geological repositories are safely sited, designed, operated and closed. We expect final approval of the document next year. Worldwide acceptance and implementation of these safety requirements as a global reference for protecting people and the environment will contribute to building confidence in radioactive waste management.

These safety standards also are expected to provide the basic reference point for international peer review teams in the evaluation of waste disposal programmes, concepts and facilities. Recent reviews, such as those carried out in the Republic of Korea and the USA under the Agency’s Waste Management Assessment and Technical Review Programme, have been helpful in improving the technical approach to repository development and supporting the approval of repository programmes.

The Joint Convention on the Safety of Spent Fuel Management and on the Safety of Radioactive Waste Management provides a framework in which Member States commit to achieving and maintaining a high level of safety worldwide in this area. Last month, the first review meeting of the Joint Convention was held in Vienna. Contracting Parties concluded that the review process mechanism had already contributed to improving the safety of spent fuel and radioactive waste management — through countries’ self-assessments of their national programmes, the identification and dissemination of ‘good practices’ in national reports, and the discussions of weaknesses and gaps in national approaches during the review meeting itself.

The IAEA will continue to encourage international co-operation on all fronts related to waste disposal and the development of geological repositories. In recent years, we have used technical co-operation projects, co-ordinated research projects and extra-budgetary funding from several Member States to establish what we call the “Network of Centres of Excellence”, which use underground research facilities in multiple countries to train and build capacity on geological disposal technologies — particularly for Member States with less developed high level waste management programmes.

A relevant initiative that the IAEA has begun to study recently is the feasibility and merit of greater international co-operation on proliferation-sensitive portions of the nuclear fuel cycle — including consideration of multinational approaches to the management and disposal of spent fuel and radioactive waste. Not all countries have the appropriate conditions for geological disposal — and, for many countries with small nuclear programmes for electricity generation or for research, the financial and human resource investments required for research, construction and operation of a geological repository are daunting. The acceptance of externally generated waste is clearly a voluntary act and for many countries would not be consistent with current national policies. However, some countries with the appropriate geology and infrastructure might welcome the associated economic and other incentives. Overall, considerable economic, safety, security and non-proliferation advantages could accrue from international co-operation on the construction and operation of nuclear fuel cycle facilities.

Conclusion

The challenges we face in some ways make up a ‘Catch 22’ situation: on the one hand, the lack of public confidence in the management and disposal of spent fuel and high level radioactive waste hampers the effectiveness and efficiency of national efforts to construct geological repositories; on the other hand, in order to substantially increase public confidence, the nuclear community must have one or more operational geological repositories in which waste disposal technologies can be successfully demonstrated. But despite this ‘Catch 22’, we can continue to make progress — and it is my view that, once the first country or countries have succeeded in placing a geological repository in service, the road ahead for other countries will be made much easier. In that sense, all members of the international community have a stake in the success of those national programmes that are the most advanced.

I would like to conclude by expressing my appreciation to the Government of Sweden and to the Swedish Radioactive Waste Management Organization for convening this important conference. We expect that it will provide a fruitful forum for policymakers and technical experts to stimulate an exchange of views on geological disposal and to update each other on technological and other progress. I would also hope that the findings and recommendations of the conference would be conveyed to the Agency, to be incorporated as appropriate into our relevant programme of activities.

Last update: 24 October 2014