European Commission publishes first report on national nuclear waste programmes

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
#844
4647
25/05/2017
Jan Haverkamp
Article

Euratom Directive 2011/70/EURATOM prescribes that Member States of Euratom have to submit comprehensive data about their radioactive waste and waste management plans. Yet the European Commission's first attempt at an overview, published in a report1 released May 15, is limited because different countries use different definitions, and most countries have not even started to calculate future waste production.

Issues of concern include the lack of sufficient funds for radioactive waste management, the lack of reflection on the fact that no final disposal technologies have been implemented for high-level waste, and the tendency of half of the Member States to want to find final solutions outside of their own borders.

The move from the European Commission to accept the option of shared / regional disposal options as acceptable is a highly worrying development. Especially since many of the Member States are still creating more radioactive waste and have no plans to minimise its production, for instance by a phase-out of the largest source of these wastes ‒ nuclear power generation. The Commission also found that those that seem to want to rely on regional solutions lag behind in the necessary research and planning for waste management. The Commission shows some implicit concerns (of course, never too explicit), and concludes that any such consideration should be accompanied by maximum transparency and public participation.

The delays in the planning of the start of operation of the potentially first high-level waste disposal repositories ‒ in Finland (from 2020 to 2022), Sweden and France (both from 2025 to 2030) ‒ is a welcome indication that some sense of realism is entering this field. It has to be remarked, however, that all three programmes still need to overcome essential technological and social hurdles. It is especially interesting to see the delay for Sweden, where Finland is relying on the technology that is still under development in Sweden and the primary cause for the delays.

There are a lot of implicit warnings in this generally rather critical overview by the European Commission ‒ especially since the Commission is usually so diplomatic. But the Commission shies away from its official mandate to point out to Member States that they have an obligation under the Aarhus Convention and EU law to take the information in this report and from procedures including public participation into account not only in future reporting (as the Commission does now), but also in concrete decisions. Among others, decisions concerning new nuclear projects and life-time extension of existing reactors.

There are several issues where Member States seem to stick their heads in the sand. For instance, concerning the question as to whether there are sufficient human resources and skills available to deal with the nuclear legacy. The indications on this question in the national reports are only sketchy. Another one is the independence of the national regulator who has to oversee the quality of radioactive waste management. Every Member State declares that this independence is guaranteed, but practice shows that that issue is far more complicated and depends on factors like availability of independent experts, sufficient financial resources, access to sufficient independent research capacity, a well-established culture of transparency and public participation, including safeguards against co-optation.

There is a fundamental disconnect between the information provided by Member States about financial reserves for radioactive waste management and other Commission information. According to this Commission report, Member States ‒ including those with nuclear power programmes ‒ claim to have adequate reserves in place. However, the European Commission's PINC report published on 12 May 2017 on upcoming investments in the nuclear sector until 2050 still flags a shortfall of €130 billion in reserves for decommissioning and waste management (€133 billion allocated, barely half of the estimated €263 billion required).2

Given the realities in countries where the issue of radioactive waste costs has come to real calculations ‒ e.g. Germany and the UK ‒ the need for government guarantees and buy-outs shows that this gap is real. The Commission indicates that it received insufficient information to be able to properly estimate whether sufficient funds have been set aside and will be available when needed. That some Member States now already declare that they might be depending on EU funding is a bad sign.

This European Commission report was long awaited and its outcomes support the worst fears. Even after almost 70 years of nuclear technology in Europe and research investments costing hundreds of millions of euros, the continent is only scratching the surface of what it needs to do to solve the nuclear legacy.

Jan Haverkamp is expert consultant on nuclear energy and energy policy for WISE, Greenpeace Central and Eastern Europe, Greenpeace Switzerland and vice-chair of Nuclear Transparency Watch.

References:

1. The European Commission report and its two staff working documents are posted at:

https://ec.europa.eu/energy/en/topics/nuclear-energy/radioactive-waste-a...

2. European Commission, 12 May 2017, 'Communication from the Commission: Nuclear Illustrative Programme, presented under Article 40 of the Euratom Treaty', http://ec.europa.eu/transparency/regdoc/rep/1/2017/EN/COM-2017-237-F1-EN...