Like any large industrial activity, electricity production using nuclear power generates waste as a by-product. In the case of nuclear power, the most important of these wastes is the radioactive spent fuel, which needs to be managed safely and responsibly.
"Spent fuel remains radioactive for thousands of years and, hence, needs stringent isolation and safety measures. The IAEA has many activities aimed at developing and sharing good practices in the management of spent fuel," explained Gary Dyck, Head, IAEA Nuclear Fuels and Materials Section.
The amount of waste produced by nuclear energy is much smaller that produced by other conventional power plants of similar capacity. However, as the number of nuclear power plants increases - over 60 reactors are currently under construction in 14 countries worldwide - supporting secure, safe and responsible management of spent fuel requires more effort and attention.
Spent Fuel Management
Once nuclear fuel reaches the end of its useful lifetime it is considered "spent fuel" and is permanently removed from the reactor. This spent fuel generates a lot of heat and is highly radioactive. "To protect people and the environment, this waste is managed in a careful, responsible manner," emphasized Dyck. "The spent nuclear fuel is initially stored underwater in spent fuel pools. The water provides cooling for the fuel and shielding from the radiation."
After a year or so, the spent fuel has become less radioactive and requires less cooling and less shielding. At this point it may be kept at the reactor site, awaiting its final disposition, or moved to a central wet storage or air-cooled dry storage facility.
"Depending on national policy, a Member State may consider the spent fuel as an energy resource, to be recycled into new nuclear fuel, while another Member State may consider the spent fuel to be waste destined for disposal.
Role of IAEA
The IAEA promotes a global safety regime by working directly with Member States to plan strategies and conduct research activities for the safe management of spent fuel. In particular, the Agency emphasizes the sharing of experience and good practices amongst Member States through the organization of international projects and meetings.
"We support coordinated research activities into the performance of fuel during storage, as well as activities to look at transportation of fuel. We provide safety guides and standards, which countries may wish to adopt and follow to ensure that fuel is handled securely, safely and responsibly its life cycle.
Activities undertaken by the IAEA include the development of IAEA Safety Standards for management and disposal of spent fuel, assistance to Member States on the application of these Safety Standards, establishment of the IAEA Radioactive Waste Management Networks, hosting international workshops on spent fuel management, and serving as the Secretariat for the meetings of the Contracting Parties of the Joint Convention on the Safety of Spent Fuel Management and the Safety of Radioactive Waste Management.