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IAEA Conference Launches 'Ethical' Appeal on Decommissioning, Environmental Remediation

Decommissioning staff cutting down a piece of large metal equipment at a nuclear facility.(Photo: Sellafield Ltd./UK)

Participants at an international IAEA conference in Spain have appealed for faster progress in addressing the legacy of the early development of nuclear energy, saying the decommissioning of old facilities and the remediation of affected sites should not be left to future generations.

“This issue has strong ethical dimensions,” Juan José Zaballa, president of the conference and of Spain’s National Company for Radioactive Waste (ENRESA), said in his conclusions to the International Conference on Advancing the Global Implementation of Decommissioning and Environmental Remediation Programmes on 27 May. Participants urged “against passing responsibilities to future generations where the means to address them currently exist,” he said.

More than 540 people representing 54 countries and four international organizations attended the 23-27 May event in Madrid, sharing and reviewing lessons learned from decommissioning and environmental remediation (D&ER) activities over the last decade, including at the site of the 2011 accident at Fukushima Daiichi in Japan and affected nearby areas. The conference’s goals included raising awareness for the growing need to address the legacy of past nuclear activities, identifying priority areas and recommending strategies for furthering the safe and effective implementation of D&ER programmes.

Among Mr Zaballa’s conclusions was a recommendation that, “subject to the views of its Member States, the IAEA should consider formulating a Plan of Action aimed at addressing the identified issues,” including doing more to identify what levels of radioactive contamination could be regarded as sufficiently low not to pose a threat to the safety of people and the environment. The conference also recommended developing international guidance for recovery following a nuclear or radiological incident or emergency, including the establishment of radiation reference levels, decommissioning end states and strategies, and waste management and disposal strategies.

Further conclusions by Mr Zaballa identified needs for Member States:

  • To establish D&ER policies and strategies where they do not already exist, including putting in place an appropriate legal and regulatory framework and plans for dealing with the aftermath of nuclear or radiological accidents or incidents.
  • To undertake D&ER programmes preferably at the earliest possible opportunity, taking advantage of advance planning and making best use of limited financial resources.
  • To take holistic approaches to managing waste from D&ER.

Additional recommendations were made:

  • To develop international standards and guidance for conditional clearance of materials from decommissioning, as well as guidance on managing D&ER project risks.
  • Greater transparency and stakeholder involvement, including international guidance on how to engage stakeholders in D&ER decision-making.
  • Greater international efforts to coordinate research and development on D&ER, and a continued exchange of information and experiences by remediation practitioners.
  • For the IAEA to explore further capacity-building mechanisms to enable Member States to use technologies facilitating D&ER.
  • Greater international efforts to develop training opportunities for young D&ER professionals.

Decommissioning and environmental remediation are of increasing importance worldwide.  Currently, 157 nuclear power reactors, many of which began operation in the 1960s as part of the first generation of power reactors, have been permanently shut down; of these, only 17 have been fully decommissioned. Of the approximately 440 nuclear power reactors in operation around the world, more than half are nearing the end of their operating lifetimes; those whose licenses are not extended will need to be decommissioned in coming years. Meanwhile, more than 300 research reactors have been fully decommissioned, while a further 180 have been shut down, with some of them now in the process of being decommissioned. In addition, 170 nuclear fuel cycle facilities have been shut down or are being decommissioned and a further 125 have been completely decommissioned.

Sites used in the past for activities involving nuclear research, uranium mining and milling, and processing of naturally occurring radioactive materials, are also candidates for environmental remediation.

The conference was hosted by the Spanish government through ENRESA, Spain’s Nuclear Safety Council and the Spanish Electricity Industry Association. Co-sponsored by the European Commission, the weeklong event was held in cooperation with the Nuclear Energy Agency of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development.

“This conference lays the groundwork for addressing the growing international D&ER needs stemming from the life cycle of large and small facilities all around the world,” said Christophe Xerri, Director of the IAEA Division of Nuclear Fuel Cycle and Waste Technology. “Developing human resources, sharing demonstrated best practices, using proven and innovative technologies will all be key to achieving the large-scale implementation of safe, secure and cost-effective programmes.”

Last update: 26 Jul 2017

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