Highly radioactive waste, and where the world is at in terms of safely disposing of it, was a focus of the weeklong International Conference on the Safety of Radioactive Waste Disposal, held in Tokyo, Japan 3-7 October 2005.
"It´s a positive story; progress is being made - and soon, perhaps, radioactive waste will no longer be seen as an ´intractable problem´," Conference President Mr. K. Ishigure summed up in his closing remarks to some 300 geologists, regulators, nuclear scientists and engineers from across the globe. These are the specialists leading the charge to find safe solutions to permanently dispose of radioactive wastes that must be isolated for centuries. The wastes are a result of nuclear power generation and national defence programmes.
Right now only one permanent facility exists for deep geological disposal. It is in New Mexico where long-lived radioactive waste from United States military programmes is carefully packaged and buried deep underground.
While the experts say disposal in geological repositories is the best and safest solution, finding communities willing to accept a repository in their "backyard" has proved difficult. Delays in geological repository programmes in most countries have meant fuel wastes are typically stored in water pools on site at nuclear power reactors for many years. The situation is not expected to change in the next decade.
Finland is a forerunner to finding a permanent solution for its high level waste. With the backing of the local community, construction started in 2003 on a potential repository site at Olkiluoto island to dispose of the country´s spent nuclear fuel. Its Nordic neighbour, Sweden, is now in the final stages of site selection, with plans to start construction around 2008.
In the US, a licensing application to proceed with construction of a repository at Yucca Mountain, Nevada is now being prepared.
Also taking shape is the idea of a multinational or "shared" geological repository. In 2003 fourteen European countries teamed up to investigate the possibilities for a regional repository for spent nuclear fuel/high-level radioactive waste. The final meeting of the group and discussion of its report, under the European Commission, takes place next month in Brussels.
"The nuclear industry has been managing radioactive waste for over half a century," said Mr. Tomihiro Taniguchi, IAEA Deputy Director General and head of Nuclear Safety and Security.
Greater efforts were need to provide assurances to address societal concerns and communicate to the public that radioactive waste can be safely managed and disposed of, if all the safety requirements are met, Mr. Taniguchi said.
The Agency supports a global nuclear safety regime based on both binding and non-binding international legal instruments, the IAEA Safety Standards and strong national safety infrastructures.
The five-day conference also addressed near surface and intermediate disposal options and their safety; regulatory control; the global nuclear safety regime and approaches to communicating safety issues.