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High safety standards for managing nuclear waste - 03/11/2010

Nuclear power plant in the countryside with two steaming cooling towers © iStock/

Common EU rules mooted for final disposal of spent fuel from nuclear power plants.

Nuclear power stations generate a third of the electricity consumed in the EU – and about 7 000 cubic metres of radioactive waste each year.

Currently, this spent nuclear fuel waste is being stored at centres close to or near the ground. But this is a short-term measure to reduce temperature and radioactivity a little.

As radioactive waste remains hazardous for up to one million years, the safest long term solution is to dispose of it deep underground, where there is less chance of it being affected by accidents, fires or earthquakes.

EU safety legislation would help meet public concerns about the sector, stemming in part from the experience of the Chernobyl plant disaster in 1986. A recent EU survey on nuclear safety found 82% would find it useful to have EU laws regulating the management of nuclear waste.

A proposed set of common EU safety standards for managing radioactive waste and deep disposal repositories aims to move EU countries toward this long-term solution. The standards will also apply to radioactive waste generated by the medical sector, industry and research.

They would make the International Atomic Energy Agency’s safety standards legally binding for all EU governments. Countries would have to publish plans for repositories, and the commission would be able to ask them to modify any plan that falls short of the standards.

An independent authority would grant licences to build and manage the storage sites and also check their safety. Agreements between different EU countries to manage shared repositories would be allowed, but exporting waste to countries outside the EU would be banned.

The public would have to be informed about plans to build radioactive waste repositories and be able to voice opinions on their location.

Today, a total of 143 nuclear power plants operate in 14 EU countries. Finland, Sweden and France plan to build the EU’s first repositories within 15 years.

More on radioactive waste management
More on nuclear safety

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