Applications of nuclear science and technology are on the rise worldwide, not only for power generation but also for "non-power activities" in agriculture, medicine, industry and research. Non-power nuclear activities also produce radioactive waste, although this waste represents a small percentage from a global perspective.
But the situation is different from country to country. In countries with nuclear power programmes, the majority of waste comes from power generation. In countries that have conducted extensive research activities in nuclear technologies, the share of non-power generated waste can reach 10 - 20 or even a higher percentage in total national waste inventory. In countries without nuclear power plants, radioactive waste comes only from nuclear applications, but its volume is small.
Regardless of waste volumes, the IAEA is assisting countries in managing their radioactive waste safely and responsibly.
"The IAEA provides assistance to Member States which want to develop consistent policies for managing radioactive waste," said Irena Mele, Head of the IAEA's Waste Technology Section. "It [the Agency] is further helping them develop strategies on how to implement these policies."
The Agency has established a variety of networks in different areas of nuclear waste management which are highly beneficial for Member States. The networks provide a forum for information exchange and dissemination and also enhance cooperation between experts in developed and less developed programmes.
"Transfer of knowledge, transfer of experience, transfer of technology is an area where the IAEA is very active," Mele said. "Through this exchange, the IAEA is helping those countries which seek assistance in the area of radioactive waste management, decommissioining and environmental remediation."
For newcomer countries in particular, the IAEA considers it of great importance to address the issue of radioactive waste from the early stages of nuclear power generation.
"When we consider introducing nuclear power into a country, we should be aware that by operating nuclear power plants we will also generate waste," Mele emphasized. "We have to address this issue, and the earlier we address it, the easier it will be later."
Current Situation Regarding Storage and Disposal of Radioactive Waste
Storage and disposal solutions differ according to the type of waste. Practices for processing, storing and disposing of low level waste are well-established in many countries and performed practically on an industrial scale.
For spent fuel and high-level waste, which is highly radioactive and requires cooling and shielding, the situation differs. Technologies and concepts to dispose of this type of waste have been developed, but are not yet being implemented.
The countries which have advanced programmes and good progress in the area of spent fuel and high-level waste disposal are Finland, France and Sweden. They are largely considered to be the pioneers in establishing a final solution for geological disposal for this type of waste.
Some Technological Challenges
One challenge in managing nuclear waste arises in cases where Member States have a very small amount of nuclear waste - mostly disused sources from medical and other nuclear applications. The IAEA assists these states in ensuring the development of proper safe and secure storage facilities or, when possible, in repatriation of disused sealed sources of high activities to the country of its origin.
The Agency has also developed the so-called Borehole disposal concept, an economical but safe solution for disposing of disused radioactive sources and small volumes of low-level waste in boreholes few tens metres under the earth. Such disposal solution is particularly convenient for countries with small volumes of waste and limited human and financial resources.
"The Agency is, at the moment, assisting several Member States interested in implementing this solution," Mele said.
Another big challenge is related to the implementing of first geological repositories for spent and high-level waste.
Irena Mele emphasized the importance of this future disposal solution.
"We expect that in about 10 years the first repositories will be really implemented. Between 2020 and 2025 the first disposal facilities for spent fuel and high-level waste will be constructed and put into operation," she said.
Challenges will of course remain once these repositories are established. For this reason, all aspects of the facilities - from its operation, progress to its closure and post-closure periods - will continue to be closely monitored during operation.
This monitoring will provide the needed evidence that the geological solution can be safe for the long term.