GC Side Event: Progress in Safe Disposal of Radioactive Waste

GC Side Event on “Progress in
Radioactive Waste Disposal Programmes Worldwide”.
IAEA, 18 September 2013.
(Photo: D.Simittchieva/IAEA)

23 September 2013 | Positive developments in IAEA Member States’ programmes for radioactive waste disposal were the focus of a side event, organised by the IAEA Department of Nuclear Energy on 18 September 2013 during the IAEA General Conference.

The event emphasized that safe and accepted disposal solutions have been and can be implemented for radioactive waste, thus dispelling the widely held public belief that radioactive waste disposal remains “an unsolved problem” of the use of nuclear technology. Around 100 participants from 21 Member States and several international organizations participated.

Alexander V. Bychkov, IAEA Deputy Director General, Head of the Department of Nuclear Energy, and Irena Mele, who leads the IAEA Waste Technology Section, welcomed delegates to the event.

“The large number of disposal facilities in operation worldwide for different types of radioactive waste prove that safe solutions for radioactive waste disposal do exist and can be implemented,” said Mr Bychkov. “Implementing these today by taking into consideration safety, technical, political and societal considerations is our ethical responsibility. The IAEA will continue to provide support to Member States in achieving this goal.”

Irena Mele highlighted the achievements made possible with advanced technologies for waste disposal. “A more positive public approach is required to this sensitive subject, which can be done with outreach activities undertaken by IAEA Member States,” said Ms Mele. “This will create a wider awareness on the available solutions for the safe disposal of radioactive waste.”

A global overview of available and operating disposal solutions, given by Stefan Mayer from the Waste Technology Section, set the stage for presentations on national waste disposal activities in six countries.

Experts from South Africa, Spain and the USA spoke about operations of their respective waste disposal facilities, ranging from simple trench type facilities for low-level waste to engineered near-surface and geological repositories for low-level and intermediate-level waste. This industry has been engaged in safe disposal operations for several decades and much knowledge and experience has been accumulated to date.

The event also emphasized the challenges of geological disposal for high level waste and spent fuel declared as waste. While the technical and scientific challenges underpinning the safety have been successfully met in programmes worldwide, many of them have not been able to overcome the societal concerns associated to disposal. As a consequence, substantial attention to the socio-political component of a successful disposal programme, and tenets such as transparency and stakeholder consultation are incorporated in the stepwise process of programme development to obtain and maintain societal acceptance.

The three geological disposal programmes that have reached or are nearing the licensing stage, in Sweden, Finland and France, were presented to illustrate the potential for successful implementation of high level waste and spent fuel disposal. The Swedish and Finnish license applications are currently undergoing regulatory review. The French disposal project is currently subject of a national public debate, and the corresponding license application is planned to be submitted in 2015.

All three countries are actively preparing the industrial phase of construction and operation, with waste emplacement to begin in 2020s, provided that a successful licensing process will receive the required authorizations from the regulatory authority and government.

In her concluding comments, Irena Mele drew attention to the IAEA's assistance to Member States in developing programmes and solutions for the safe disposal of radioactive waste. With the increasing use of nuclear power generation and the widespread use of radioisotopes in research, industry, medicine and agriculture, sharing information, knowledge and technology is vital for the success of radioactive waste disposal programmes.

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