Nuclear waste disposal directive set out for EU

4 Nov 2010

The European Commission (EC) has proposed a set of safety standards for the disposal of hazardous wastes, such as nuclear waste and medicines, across the European Union (EU).

In the new directive, the EC asks that Member States present national programmes that indicate the means they have in place to construct and manage final repositories to ensure the highest safety standards. The overall aim of the directive is to enforce an internationally agreed on safety standard across the EU.

Waste from the nuclear process is usually termed radioactive and is a direct result of nuclear power industry. Although it diminishes over time, the waste must be isolated in order for it not to pose any hazard.

While medical waste can take hours to years to become rendered non-hazardous, high-level waste – part of reprocessed spent fuel which cannot be re-used and has therefore to be disposed forever – from nuclear power plants can take thousands of years to reach that stage despite the many technologies that enable the disposal of nuclear waste, such as reprocessing and high pressure breeder reactors. The EU regulations aim to achieve this universal directive across the EU in order to maintain safe standards in its Member States.

Safety is indivisible

Energy Commissioner Günther Oettinger said: “Safety concerns all citizens and all EU countries, whether they are in favour or against nuclear energy. We have to make sure that we have the highest safety standards in the world to protect our citizens, our water and the ground against nuclear contamination. Safety is indivisible. If an accident happens in one country, it can have devastating effects also in others.”

The first nuclear power reactor became operational in the UK more than 50 years ago (1956 Calder Hall) and to this day there are still no final repositories. The EC estimates that 7,000 cubic meters of high level waste is typically produced in the EU, with the majority of the material being stored in interim storages.

The Commission proposes to set up an EU legally binding and enforceable framework to ensure that all Member States will apply the common standards developed in the context of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) for all stages of spent fuel and radioactive waste management up to final disposal.

Out of 27 Member States, 14 Member States have nuclear power plants.