The EU's deep underground storage plan

03 November 2010

The European Commission has today released its long-awaited proposed nuclear waste directive, which would tell European Union (EU) member states to develop plans to store radioactive waste in safe repositories.  


The proposal however avoids the issue of whether to force governments to use deep underground repositories, even though it is clearly Brussels' favoured option.


A commission memorandum said: "Geological conditions are very different. This is why it is up to the member states to define the depths according to the site specific situation. Every site must be evaluated according to its specific situation."


 "All EU member states  
  generate radioactive
  waste, whether or not 
  they have a national
  nuclear power program,
  and therefore have to
  identify solutions and
  define national
  requirements to
  manage it properly."
  European Commission
  Public consultation document
However, it adds: "It is broadly accepted at the technical level that deep geological disposal represents the safest and most sustainable option as the end point of the management of high level waste and spent fuel considered as waste."


If the directive is approved by the EU Council of Ministers and the European Parliament, member states would have to draft suitable national programs within four years detailing plans for constructing and managing disposal facilities, including descriptions of disposal solutions, timetables, costs assessments and financing. If the commission believes these plans breach EU nuclear safety rules, it could require changes.


The directive would also allow two or more member states to share a repository, although they could not export nuclear waste outside the EU for final disposal. Also, the legislation would insist governments inform and consult the public when drawing up their plans.


And regarding disposal operations, the legislation would make International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safety standards legally binding across the EU, including the work of independent authorities licensing repositories and inspecting their operations.


Releasing the proposal, EU energy Commissioner Günther Oettinger said: "Safety concerns all citizens and all EU countries, whether they are in favour or against nuclear energy."


Second time lucky
Today's nuclear waste directive represents part of a dramatically scaled back "common EU approach" to nuclear safety announced as a package of directives in 2002.
The 2002 draft directive on waste gave "priority to geological burial of waste as the safest method known at present" and told EU states they must decide on a burial site "by 2008 at the latest and have the sites in operation at the latest by 2018."

This top-down decision making was rejected by most states, although Italy - holding the Presidency of the EU in late 2003 - attemped to meet the targets, much to the anger of its citizens who felt consultation had been wholly inadequate when the first site was announced.

This legislation has been drafted and debated by Brussels officials for years, and covers all kinds of radioactive waste and used nuclear fuel, whether from nuclear power plants or medical and research facilities.


All member states would have to comply, including non-nuclear countries. "All EU member states generate radioactive waste, whether or not they have a national nuclear power program, and therefore have to identify solutions and define national requirements to manage it properly," said a commission report.

The proposal follows wide-ranging public consultation by the commission and years of attempts to persuade EU ministers to back EU legislation on nuclear waste. Some member states, notably Germany and the UK, have been notably prickly about surrendering national sovereignty over the issue and Brussels may still face a tough time getting the proposal onto the EU statute book.


It will also be opposed by the European Parliament's Green group, which especially claims the legislation's definition of waste is too loose and allows companies to store nuclear by-products that may have a potential future use, rather than disposing of this material. "The possibility to store for an unlimited period of time very large quantities of wastes ... under hypothetical and highly unrealistic scenarios of future use is certainly not… sustainable," said EP Green co-president Rebecca Harms.


However, the legislation should be given a fair wind in the EU Council of Ministers by the Hungarian government when it assumes the six-monthly presidency of the EU in January. Hungary's national development minister Tamás Fellegi told a Budapest conference entitled 'Nuclear Energy in Europe: From Acceptance to Ownership' he would make its passage a priority, adding it and the proposed radiation protection directive were "the biggest challenges for the Hungarian Presidency in the nuclear field."


By Keith Nuthall
for World Nuclear News