CHAPTER 3: SOME OPTIONS AND
Recent International Experience
3.28 We outline below the situation in those countries
we visited during the course of our enquiry, namely the US, Canada,
Sweden and France. We are aware that there are substantial nuclear
waste management problems in other countries, particularly in
Eastern Europe, but we did not examine these.
3.29 The scale of the radioactive waste management
problem in the US is bigger than that in the United Kingdom in
terms of volume of long-lived wastes, but similar in terms of
diversity. HLW in the US is primarily unreprocessed spent fuel,
but there is also some HLW from reprocessing and weapons grade
plutonium which has been declared to be waste. Broadly speaking,
US transuranic (TRU) waste is what we would call long-lived ILW.
It has mostly arisen from defence-related processes.
3.30 After about twenty years' work, the US geological
repository for TRU waste is about to become operational. This
is WIPP (the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant), which is located in
bedded salt at Carlsbad in New Mexico, and for which the long-term
safety case has been made to the satisfaction of the regulators.
In contrast, work on the US repository for HLW, at Yucca Mountain,
(Nevada) is at an early stage. Here underground research is in
progress, but levels of local and national opposition to constructing
the repository at this site are high.
3.31 No reprocessing has been carried out in Canada.
Its HLW consists of unreprocessed fuel from CANDU
reactors and there are only small amounts of long-lived ILW. The
main recent development in Canada was the publication, in early
1998, of the report by the Nuclear Fuel Waste Management and Disposal
Concept Environmental Assessment Panel. This concluded that, from
a technical perspective, the safety of the Canadian nuclear industry's
deep repository concept had been demonstrated adequately for a
conceptual stage of development, but that this was not the case
from a social perspective. The panel reached the conclusion that
geological disposal has not been shown to have broad public support
and recommended that selection of a repository site should not
begin. During our visit to Ottawa, the Chairman of the panel made
the point to us that failure to demonstrate acceptability is not
synonymous with a clear indication of unacceptability. The problem
with the Canadian approach hitherto was that it had not included
a comparison of their geological disposal concept with any alternatives,
and that it was not meaningful to consult the public about the
acceptability of one option without the context of others. Hence
the panel recommended, inter alia, that there should be development
and comparison of various long-term management options, within
an ethical and social assessment framework.
3.32 The Canadian government responded to the panel's
report in December 1998. It stated that it agreed with most of
the panel's recommendations and with the intent of the rest. The
government said that it expects producers and owners of Canadian
nuclear fuel waste to establish a waste management organisation,
incorporated as a separate legal entity and financed by a special
fund. The organisation is to develop and compare waste management
options, and to implement the preferred approach for long-term
management, including disposal of nuclear fuel waste. The organisation
is to report to government on its preferred approach and its justification,
including a comprehensive public participation plan, an ethical
and social assessment framework, and a comparison of the risks,
costs and benefits of options. The government will determine whether
it accepts the preferred approach.
3.33 The nuclear waste problem in Sweden is much
smaller than that in the United Kingdom: essentially the only
long-lived waste they have to deal with is unreprocessed spent
fuel from light water reactors. Sweden is proceeding in a measured
and open fashion with geological disposal of spent fuel. The aim
is to have a demonstration emplacement of a small quantity of
fuel in a repository by about 2010, for the repository to be fully
operational by about 2020, and for it to close around 2050/60.
Until closure the waste will be monitored and retrievable. A process
for selecting a repository site is in progress, using a volunteering
approach, ie an approach based on seeking a community which might
volunteer to 'host' a repository. So far this has not been successful
but the last attempt failed by only a small margin in a local
referendum and there is confidence that a site will eventually
3.34 Spent fuel is at present stored in a central
facility below the ground, CLAB. A repository at Forsmark for
LLW and short-lived ILW began operation in 1988. It is at a depth
of about 60 metres, in crystalline rock beneath the Baltic Sea.
3.35 It is the present policy of the Swedish government
that nuclear power will be phased out some time in the next century.
It is not entirely clear when this might be or what alternative
energy sources could replace nuclear power. Meanwhile, existing
nuclear power stations are being refurbished.
3.36 France has a substantial civil nuclear programme,
reprocesses its own and other countries' spent nuclear fuel and
has a defence nuclear programme. The waste management problems
in France are of a similar scale to those in the United Kingdom
but are less technically complex, because there has been one predominant
type of nuclear reactor: the pressurised water reactor (PWR).
This means that there are fewer types of ILW and rather less long-lived
ILW than in the United Kingdom.
3.37 Since about 1969 France has disposed of LLW
and short-lived ILW in near-surface engineered facilities. The
first of these, Centre de la Manche, became full and closed in
1994. The site is being sealed ready for a long period of institutional
control (300 years), during which time the radioactive content
of the short-lived ILW will decrease to that of LLW. The second
facility, Centre de l'Aube, began accepting waste in 1992 and
has the capacity for about 30 years' waste arisings.
3.38 France has been studying deep geological disposal
of HLW and long-lived ILW since the 1970s. Investigations began
at four sites in 1987 but ceased about two years later as a result
of public opposition. A government review of the management strategy
for HLW and long-lived ILW was then carried out (which included
public hearings) and this led, in 1991, to the passing of a law
which set out the framework for R&D on management and disposal
of these wastes over a 15 year period. The framework requires
that at least two potential repository sites be established with
underground laboratories and that the sites to be chosen via proposals
from local communities. So far, three sites have been selected
by this process.
3.39 The framework includes
taking a decision on the chosen repository site by the year 2006.
We were told during our visit to France in October 1998 that it
was becoming doubtful that this deadline would be met, primarily
because of opposition at the national political level. Green parties
in France are opposed to nuclear power and to geological disposal
(instead they favour surface or near-surface storage). Nevertheless,
in early December 1998 the French government announced that an
underground laboratory is to be constructed at one of the sites
being investigated: the Est clay site at Bure in Meuse département.
A centre for research into reversible emplacement of waste underground
is to be constructed near another clay site at Gard (near Marcoule).
The third, granite, site (Vienne) has been found to be unsuitable
and a search will start in 1999 for a possible site for an underground
laboratory in granite. At the same time the government announced
reforms of French nuclear safety supervision. These include the
creation of an independent nuclear safety authority that will
present an annual report to parliament and the chairman of which
can be called before parliament to answer questions.
Views of International Agencies
3.40 We heard evidence from representatives of the
United Nations' International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA, QQ 1605-1652)
and the European Commission (QQ 1338-1391), and in Paris we saw
staff of the OECD's Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA). All three organisations
act on the basis of a consensus among their member states and
their work on long-lived radioactive wastes is focused on geological
3.41 The IAEA is establishing safety standards for
geological disposal; these are mainly qualitative at present and
there is resistance from some member states to more quantitative
standards. It also runs co-ordinated research programmes and arranges
peer reviews of its member states' repository research and their
safety assessments (Q 1646). An important part of its work is
to provide assistance to less developed countries, particularly
to help them establish the infrastructure and regulatory systems
required to manage radioactive wastes to the same standards as
in developed countries (Q 1639, Q 1643).
3.42 In the past the IAEA put considerable effort
into the promotion of international (regional) repositories, for
example in Africa. This effort was unsuccessful and there are
conflicts at the international level between those who wish to
establish regional repositories and those who want to ensure that
wastes are not transported across national boundaries (Q 1627-1629).
3.43 The European Commission aims to develop and
implement a strategy for radioactive waste management at the European
Union level. It also has a considerable programme for providing
advice and technical assistance to other countries, particularly
those in central and eastern Europe who wish to join the European
Union and the countries of the former Soviet Union (Q 1338, Q
1355). The Commission funds and co-ordinates research in Member
States and provides a forum for discussions amongst regulators,
with a view to the harmonisation of standards and regulations
3.44 The Commission wishes to encourage the development
of repositories that can accept wastes from more than one country
but has encountered opposition from some Member States: it now
tends to focus on the objective of the European Union being self-sufficient
in waste disposal (Q 1357-1360). Like the IAEA it sees difficulties
in establishing detailed standards for radioactive waste management
(Q 1377). It is working on a "communication" on the
need for geological disposal, in an attempt to encourage member
states to move forward (Q 1383). The Commission is also involved
to some extent in producing information for the public about radioactive
wastes and their management (Q 1385).
3.45 NEA acts mainly in a co-ordinating and peer
review role for its member states. It is strongly supportive of
the concept of geological disposal, but has noted that there is
a reluctance to proceed to disposal with large and irreversible
steps. Initial phases can include extended storage and retrievable
emplacement. Such phased programmes are motivated by a need to
build public confidence in the geological disposal option and
in the competence of disposal organisations and regulators.
3.46 From IAEA, the European Commission and NEA we
gained the impression that progress at the international level,
particularly on regional repositories, is dependent on progress
in individual countries that are developing their own repositories.
22 CANDU: Canadian Deuterium Uranium reactors. Back