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Promoting Safety of Spent Fuel and Radioactive Waste Management: 20 Years of the Joint Convention


There are many practical and peaceful applications of nuclear energy, and these processes yield by-products that need to be managed safely. Compliance with international standards regarding the management of spent nuclear fuel and radioactive waste increases safety globally, and over the last two decades, the IAEA has supported the efforts to achieve and maintain a high level of safety through the Joint Convention on the Safety of Spent Fuel Management and on the Safety of Radioactive Waste Management.

Twenty years ago, on 18 June 2001, the Joint Convention entered into force with 25 countries. Today, of the 173 IAEA Member States, 83 are party to the Convention. Congo is the most recent party to the Convention.

“While we celebrate, let us also strive to maximize its benefit by redoubling our effort towards making it universal,” said IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi in his video message about the Joint Convention.

What is the Joint Convention?

The Joint Convention is the only international legally binding instrument to address the safety of spent fuel and radioactive waste management. Spent fuel – nuclear fuel that has been removed from a nuclear power or research reactor following irradiation – is a mixture of plutonium, uranium and radioactive waste materials that must be carefully managed. Aside from the operation of nuclear reactors, radioactive waste is generated from a range of applications of atomic energy, including the use of radioisotopes in medical, industrial, research and agricultural sectors.

“Argentina decided to join [the Joint Convention], understanding that its norms and regulations will benefit not only the health of the international system but also the health of our own society,” said Andrea Docters, National Contact of Argentina for the Joint Convention. “Participation in the Joint Convention gave impulse and strengthened actions such as the promotion of good practices, the promotion of projects for the environmental restoration of uranium mining and processing sites, the review and update of the Strategic Plan, legislation and regulations.”

Obligations under the Joint Convention

As part of a global regime, Contracting Parties are obligated to implement legislative, regulatory and administrative measures to ensure the protection of people and the environment from the harmful effects of ionizing radiation throughout all stages of spent fuel and radioactive waste management. Each country commits to uphold safety measures, to prepare a national report on applied measures and to submit the report for review by all Contracting Parties.

“Preparation of the national report contributes to self-assessment of the national radioactive waste management infrastructure,” said the Ghana Joint Convention Working Committee. Since the 1960s, Ghana has used radioactive material in health care, industry and research and plans to introduce nuclear power into its electricity grid. “The system used in compiling national reports has allowed Ghana to harmonize the approach to ensuring safety,” the Committee added. “The Nuclear Regulatory Authority works with the main operator, Ghana Atomic Energy Commission, and other operators to prepare the reports, review national reports of other Contracting Parties, submit questions, respond to questions and prepare for the review meetings.”

Contracting Parties conduct peer reviews of national reports that explain how each country meets their obligations under the Convention. The review process culminates in a two-week meeting every three years, where Contracting Parties present and discuss their reports. “The Joint Convention provides a venue to identify and highlight international best practices. It provides a peer review process every three years that enables Contracting Parties to both assess their spent fuel and radioactive waste management regimes and to learn from the best practices and lessons learned of other countries,” stated the USA’s Joint Convention team. The next peer review meeting will be in 2022. Documents related to the Joint Convention, including national reports and newsletters, are publicly available here.

Call for all countries to join the Joint Convention

Ultimately, joining any convention is a sovereign decision of each country. In a resolution adopted during the 2020 IAEA General Conference, all Member States that had not yet become party to the Joint Convention, particularly those managing radioactive waste or spent fuel, were urged to do so. “The active participation of all IAEA Member States in the work of the Joint Convention is necessary to strengthen their national safety regimes and increase institutional support for nuclear energy and related activities,” said the Joint Convention working group of the Russian Federation.

In his video statement, Mr Grossi said that “the Convention fosters transparency and public confidence. This confidence enables Member States to use nuclear energy and its applications towards their sustainable development goals and to mitigate climate change.”

Read more about the treaties under IAEA auspices.

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