Radioactive waste and spent fuel are side products in nuclear energy production and other nuclear applications in medicine, industry and research.
The quantities of radioactive waste and spent fuel produced historically are small if compared to other conventional energy sources of similar capacity. Nevertheless, their management is demanding because of radioactivity and its possible harmful effect on people and the environment.
As such, radioactive waste and spent fuel require specific approach, treatment and handling.
The IAEA promotes a global safety regime and the application of safety and security standards and best practices in dealing with radioactive waste and spent fuel in all member states.
"What is needed if we want to have safe and sustainable waste management is first of all the establishment of consistent legal framework with clear allocation of responsibilities and a policy and strategy of how to deal with all types of radioactive waste, from their generation to final disposal," says Irena Mele, Head of the IAEA´s Waste Technology Section.
"The next step would be to establish an infrastructure for the management of radioactive waste."
Several countries with an established nuclear power programme have already built an infrastructure for the safe and secure management of radioactive waste and spent fuel. However, there are states that have a less developed or smaller nuclear programme that still need to progress in this area.
"These countries are asking the IAEA for assistance and we are trying to help them in different areas: from legal and regulatory aspects to the processing and disposal of radioactive waste, and from the decommissioning of nuclear facilities and environmental remediation of sites, to the management of disused sealed radioactive sources," explains Mele.
Key to this strategy is the sharing of experience and good practices among countries through knowledge networking promoted by the IAEA.
"In last few years we have launched networks in areas such as international decommissioning, near surface disposal, underground research facilities for geological disposal and environmental remedial activities," explains Mele.
"We are now in the process of launching Labonet, a network for waste characterization."
To address these issues, more than 200 experts from over 40 countries will meet next week in Vienna. The International Conference on Management of Spent Fuel from Nuclear Power Reactors will be held in Vienna from 31 May to 4 June 2010.
The five-day event is organized by the IAEA in cooperation with the OECD Nuclear Energy Agency (OECD/NEA).
Meetings on spent fuel storage held under IAEA auspices have taken place normally every four years since 1987. The most recent international conference on this topic was held in Vienna in June 2006.