A number of IAEA initiatives are in place to help countries deal with challenges as they consider programmes for safely managing their spent fuel and radioactive waste. Ranging from safety standards, peer-to-peer and networked collaborations to technical advise these initiatives help harmonize and promote a global safety regime that protects people and the environment from the harmful effects of ionizing radiation.
On the forefront are the legal instruments governing safety, particularly the Joint Convention on the Safety of Spent Fuel Management and on the Safety of Radioactive Waste Management. Entering into force in 2001, the Convention obliges its Parties to establish and maintain a legislative and regulatory framework to govern the safety of spent fuel and radioactive waste management. It is the first legal instrument to address this topic on a global scale. In addition, there is a whole set of IAEA safety standards addressing the safety aspects of spent fuel and radioactive waste management. They set the bar on safety on a global basis.
"These legal instruments and safety standards put emphasis on early establishment of policies governing the backend of the fuel cycle as well as the long-term management of spent fuel," stressed Magnus Vesterlind, Head of the IAEA Waste and Environmental Safety Section.
Radioactive waste with low concentrations of radioactivity - normally referred to as low-level or intermediate level wastes - have been safely managed and stored for many decades.
"There is extensive, good experience in safely managing and disposing these types of waste," Mr. Vesterlind emphasized.
"Spent fuel and high level waste have also been managed safely for many decades," he added, "including handling, conditioning, and storage."
Many Member States are currently researching the long-term disposal option and some have reported good progress in this area. However, disposal of spent fuel and high-level waste has not yet been implemented in any country, either for lack of resources or for technological or political reasons.
A long-term disposal solution is a complicated, multi-step process requiring meticulous characterization of the high-level waste or spent fuel, and of the site where the disposal facility will be constructed. The required financial, human and technological resources can be a major challenge for many.
"It is quite a big step to go from research and development into actual implementation of spent fuel disposal on a large, industrial scale," Vesterlind pointed out.
But political will and public acceptance are considered to the biggest hurdles in the implementing longer-term solutions for the disposal of spent fuel and high-level.
"In many instances, it has proven difficult as well as politically and publicly sensitive to find a site for a disposal facility," Vesterlind said. "So the biggest challenge is to find political and public support for the implementation."
Finland, which is a forerunner to finding a permanent solution for its high-level waste, has successfully gained public acceptance for its project, and may soon get a construction license for its underground disposal facilities, according to Tero Varjoranta, Director General of the Finnish Radiation and Nuclear Safety Authority (STUK).
What IAEA is Doing
The IAEA works directly with Member States interested in concrete projects in spent fuel and radioactivewaste management. One important area is in the development of harmonized methodologies for safety assessments that would demonstrate that disposal methods are safe over long periods of time.
"The Agency has also established the Underground Research Facility Network, which is an affiliation of facilities from Member States that conduct experiments and develop technologies to be used for disposal," explained Vesterlind.
These networks aim to increase efficiency in sharing international experience and bring together managers, planners and implementers of nuclear technologies who wish to improve international practices.
Lessons from Fukushima
The nuclear industry as a whole will continue to learn lesssons from the Fukushima nuclear accident of March 2011. In the area of spent fuel and radioactive waste management, actions taken after the accident indicate a strong, global interest towards permanent, off-site solutions.
"There is growing interest among several countries to move quickly from removal of the spent fuel from reactor sites to more independent storage facilities," Vesterlind said.