Viewpoint: Sharing knowledge in European radwaste management

12 April 2019

All countries in Europe have a common interest in ensuring that radioactive waste management is done in a way that guarantees safety and security today and also in the long term, writes Charles McCombie, president of Arius Association.

Charles McCombie (Image: Arius Association)

In the many countries involved there is a great diversity in the extent to which nuclear technologies are employed and, accordingly, in the size and the characteristics of the waste inventories involved. In those that use nuclear power, a major challenge is safely handling and disposing of the used fuel elements from reactors or the high-level waste from reprocessing.

The internationally recognised solution for the long-term management of high-level and long-lived wastes is geological disposal in properly sited and designed deep disposal facilities. Several European countries are well advanced in implementing this solution.

In those countries with no nuclear power but with research reactors, or whose only nuclear applications are in medicine, industry and research, the quantities of wastes are smaller - but they also include long-lived wastes or used fuel from research reactors for which geological disposal is a necessity.

Accordingly, all countries, large or small, that make use of nuclear technologies must have credible radioactive waste management policies and strategies that ensure safe management, treatment and conditioning, storage and disposal of all radioactive wastes - and these need to include pathways to geological disposal.

One effective approach to achieving this goal is the promotion of collaboration between European countries. The European Commission (EC) has long recognised this in its succession of programmes aimed at financially supporting joint activities involving a number of Member States, as well as participants from non-EU European nations. The successive Framework Programmes, each of which ran for some years, led to the Horizon 2020 Initiative, within which a European Joint Programming approach has been initiated to enhance coordination of national radwaste programmes.

The focus of the EC approach has always been on cooperation in R&D work, rather than on strategic issues or on practical activities involved in implementing multinational practical cooperation. The Waste Directive of 2011 widened considerably the requirements on radioactive waste management programmes in EU Member States by including strategic goals. In the first iteration of national reports submitted to the European Commission, around half of Members States indicated an interest in pursuing options for cooperation approaches, including consideration of shared multinational repositories (MNRs).

In order to enhance cooperation also at the strategic level, the  European Repository Development Organisation (ERDO) Working Group was founded with support of 10 Members States in 2009, following comprehensive, EC-funded studies on MNRs (the SAPIERR studies), with the explicit goal of pursuing this topic further. Fourteen European countries were involved in SAPPIER and 13 are, or have been, involved with ERDO work over the past decade.

Cooperation with the EC has continued throughout this period and a successful joint meeting was organised in Luxembourg in 2013.

The ERDO-WG has widened its interests beyond the eventual goal of a shared MNR to include activities in the pre-disposal phase that could benefit from sharing knowledge, technologies or facilities. The time is therefore ripe for organising further initiatives aimed at reviewing past and present shared activities and looking for practical opportunities for enhancing such approaches.

The EC has indicated that it intends, at some stage, to organise a meeting to gather input from all Member States on their general attitudes to multinational facilities. The ERDO-WG is, meanwhile, arranging a more specific workshop, focused on practical steps to enhance sharing of waste management facilities for treatment, storage or disposal. Whilst the venue remains to be confirmed, it is anticipated that this workshop will be hosted by the IAEA in Vienna on 25-26 September.

The workshop will focus on the contributions to safe and secure management of radioactive wastes in Europe that can be achieved by countries sharing strategic approaches, specific activities and centralised facilities. With its emphasis on practical proposals that can directly support operational programmes, in particular in countries with small inventories of wastes, with limited resources or early stage programmes, it is complementary to future projects of the EC (such as EURAD) that are primarily designed to support front-line technologies and advanced R&D. EURAD is the EC acronym for the major project that has just been approved as the start of the European Joint Programming in R&D radioactive waste management.

The active participation of smaller European programmes with a declared or potential interest in pre-disposal and MNR activities is expected, along with any larger national programmes that might be interested in transferring technologies. Participation from outside Europe is also welcome, as other regions of the world have an interest in the ERDO-WG model.  The overall objective of the workshop will be to review possibilities and identify a small number of specific activities that can be developed on a shared basis, developing outline proposals for how to move forward with these.

It is acknowledged that all countries, including those with an interest in a shared repository approach, also have an obligation to establish a national disposal option: that is, they are constrained to follow a dual track approach at the present time.

Further details of the ERDO-WG Workshop will be published on the website

Switzerland-based Arius is a non-commercial association founded to help promote concepts for shared facilities on behalf of members who have an interest in exploring all possible waste management options.

Researched and written by World Nuclear News