EU to propose burying nuclear waste as safest option

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The European Commission will promote underground storage as the safest option for storing nuclear waste, according to a leaked proposal which has already irked environmentalists.

The draft directive seeks to set up an EU framework for managing used fuel and radioactive waste which is generated by nuclear power plants but also medicine and industry, among others.

The proposal, seen by EurActiv, will be unveiled by EU Energy Commissioner Günther Oettinger next Wednesday (3 November).

"Most countries have yet to take key decisions regarding the management of spent fuel and radioactive waste," the Commission argues. It points out that only a handful of member states have well-established programmes to implement disposal of fuel and waste from nuclear power plants.

The problem should be addressed urgently in order not to burden future generations with nuclear waste disposal and associated risks, like lack of financing for storage or terrorist threats, the EU executive says.

The proposal, seen by EurActiv, argues that deep geological disposal is "the safest and most sustainable option" for the final management of high-level waste. This is a matter of worldwide scientific consensus, the Commission claims, urging member states to implement disposal.

Sweden currently has the most advanced plans to bury nuclear waste in copper-coated canisters at a depth of around 500 meters. Finland and France are also preparing underground repositories.

Each member state will remain responsible for its policy on managing radioactive waste, the Commission said. But the new directive will oblige them to establish a national programme for implementing disposal as well as national regulators.

The Greens in the European Parliament accused Oettinger of insufficient consultation and condemned the lack of civil society views in the proposal.

Green MEP Rebecca Harms (Germany) said the written procedure without a debate used by the Commission was not adequate for such an important decision. The European Parliament did not see the draft proposal until last Friday, she said.

"There is no true picture of the nuclear waste problem," Harms said, referring to a lack of accurate figures on how much red waste is held by member states. She also questioned the scientific consensus in favour of deep storage, saying that deciding on the best options would require an open scientific debate.

"The Commission has turned its draft directive into a blatant piece of PR for one radioactive waste management technique, in spite of the fact that this technique – deep geological disposal – is currently facing many scientific and engineering challenges," argued Jan Haverkamp of environmental campaign group Greenpeace.

There are problems regarding waste container design, the stability of host rock and a complete lack of measures to monitor and retrieve the waste in case of catastrophic leakages, he said.

Who will pick up the bill?

The draft directive only briefly mentions responsibility for financing the management of nuclear waste. It requires member states to ensure that adequate financial resources are available, "taking due account of the responsibility of radioactive waste producers".

The Greens argued that the costs would need to be calculated by an independent body for reliability. In France, for instance, estimated costs for final disposal by electricity utility EDF have more than doubled in a few years, they said.

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