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OSPAR 2003: exemptions for reprocessing industry

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 

(July 11, 2003) At the 25-26 June OSPAR (Oslo-Paris Convention) ministerial meeting in German Bremen progress has been made by defining baseline levels for discharges of radioactivity by 2020. However, the agreement by the minister was only possible after three exemptions were allowed due to pressure from the U.K. and France. These exemptions will relief the reprocessing industry from making significant reductions in discharges.

(590.5527) WISE Amsterdam - At the 1998 ministerial meeting of OSPAR countries in Sintra, Portugal, it was agreed that by 2020 "discharges, emissions and losses of radioactive substances are reduced to levels where the additional concentrations in the marine environment above historic levels, resulting from such discharges, emissions and losses are close to zero" (see WISE/NIRS Nuclear Monitor 589.5523: "OSPAR 2003: discharges Sellafield far away from 'close to zero' target").

This meant that the reprocessing industry was forced to work on significant reductions of discharges. However, at the 1998 meeting no "baseline level" was laid down yet. Such a baseline level will define the amount of discharges that will be seen as "historic levels". According to the 1998 agreement, additional discharges above that level must the "close to zero" by 2020. So, laying down the baseline level will define how big the discharge levels can be in 2020.

At the Bremen meeting, the criteria for baseline level were accepted, although three exemptions were made for the reprocessing industry. According to NuclearFuel, "A fair bit of horse trading was required to enable the U.K. and France to consent to a baseline flexible enough to be used". Two options were discussed: the average annual discharge levels of 1996-2000 and the average levels of 1993-2001. The five-year period of 1996-2000 was unacceptable to the U.K. as it included a year (1998) in which discharges were quite low. Such a low-discharge year would reduce the annual average over 5 years substantially. The French opposed the second option (1993-2001 as it included two years (2000-2001) of low-discharge levels.

Eventually, the chairman of the meeting, German environment minister Juergen Trittin, forced a compromise of 1995-2001. But that was only possible after formulating three exemptions for the reprocessing industry.

The first exemption was to define "an appropriate method for applying the baseline to the radionuclides iodine-129, carbon-14 and tritium". These are three important substances that are released by reprocessing. Although the agreed text suggests laying down special discharge levels for these isotopes, some think that it acts as a partial exemption clause for these isotopes. This exemption was included on behest of the French and will relief the La Hague plant from the most difficult reductions.

The second exemption concerns "exceptional discharges" from decomissioning and clean-up activities at U.K.'s Sellafield complex. Such activities have already resulted in increasing levels of discharges from Sellafield. Especially the increasing levels of technetium-99 have caused several protests by other countries, such as Ireland and Norway. Substantial reductions in technetium-99 discharges will therefore be difficult with this exemption.

The third exemption is to allow for the variability in operational discharge levels. Instead of defining yearly maximum levels, it will allow the reprocessing industry to discharge bigger amounts in a particular year. Opening the way for "promises" to be expected by the U.K. and France that in subsequent years the discharges will be lower.

These three exemptions mean that progress of discharge reductions against the baseline "is not going to be the simple exercise it would first appear", said a meeting participant. The ministers believe that the results of OSPAR 2003 will result in overall reductions by 2020, "but whether the result would be the required 'close to zero' levels was still impossible to ascertain".


Contact: WISE Amsterdam