How Should Nuclear Newcomers Manage Spent Fuel and Radioactive Waste?

7 February 2014 | A recent IAEA publication on establishing a sound management structure for radioactive waste and spent fuel provides a concise summary of key issues to be addressed by countries embarking on a nuclear power programme.

Today, 30 countries use nuclear power in energy production and about the same number consider introducing it in their energy mix. Many of these so-called “newcomer” countries have limited experience in managing radioactive waste and spent nuclear fuel. They often have limited information about available technologies and approaches for safe and long-term management of radioactive waste and spent nuclear fuel arising from power reactors. The lack of basic know-how and of a credible waste management strategy could present major challenges or even obstacles for countries wishing to start a nuclear power programme.

To help its Member States, the IAEA has to date published many documents advising on radioactive waste and spent fuel management, such as establishing nuclear technical and regulatory infrastructures, relevant financing schemes, national policy and strategies. However, no single document summarized all the important aspects of spent fuel and radioactive waste management.

The new publication, Options for Management of Spent Fuel and Radioactive Waste for Countries Developing New Nuclear Power Programmes, is aimed at filling this gap. It will serve as a credible source of initial information for those who are involved in decision-making and planning of introducing nuclear power into a national energy programme. It is designed to brief countries with new or small nuclear programmes about the challenges, and to describe current and potential alternatives for managing reactor waste and spent fuel arising from the operation and decommissioning of nuclear power plants.

The publication deals primarily with current technical options for management of spent fuel and radioactive waste but also considers possible future developments, and discusses relevant legal, political, technical and safety issues. It covers spent nuclear fuel, waste from reactor operation, waste from decommissioning and waste from reprocessing and recycling of nuclear fuel and addresses current management practices required for their storage and disposal. Although it deals with all waste categories, more weight is placed on long lived wastes and spent fuel, since the timescales, the technological challenges and the financial resources required for the safe management of these are larger than for other waste types.

The document is short, concise and provides key messages and recommendations, whose serious consideration will help countries introducing or expanding a small nuclear programme address the challenges associated with spent nuclear fuel and radioactive waste.

-- By Irena Mele, NEFW, Department of Nuclear Energy

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