Select Committee on Science and Technology Third Report


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.

United states

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[22] 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 be selected.

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 disposal.

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 (Q 1343).

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

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