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Proposed Euratom nuclear waste directive

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
Jan Haverkamp, Greenpeace International

European Union Member States should be aware of significant and potentially costly omissions from the European Commission’s proposed Euratom directive, delivered by Commissioner Oettinger on 3 November 2010. The risk is that a sub-standard Commission proposal leads member states to invest heavily in facilities which fail, with costly financial and environmental effects. However, Greenpeace welcomes some areas of increased transparency on the issue.

“This proposal is little more than a PR exercise to try and persuade Europeans that nuclear waste can be dealt with. What we need is a serious attempt to reduce the burden that radioactive waste is putting on future generations and the environment. It would take an engineering genius to safely bury white hot, highly-dangerous nuclear waste deep underground for longer than mankind has been on the planet. There are gaps in the science and no disposal site currently exists, yet the Commission is claiming this is a proven method. We fear a disposal facility could rupture high level nuclear waste into the water table for a hundreds of thousands of year,” says Greenpeace EU dirty energy campaigner Jan Haverkamp

A PR exercise
A 2008 Eurobarometer poll (‘Attitudes Towards Radioactive Waste’) showed that nuclear waste is a major barrier to public acceptance of nuclear power. The nuclear industry wants to overcome public resistance to new nuclear power stations. Greenpeace believes this proposal as drafted with this aim in mind. Instead of being an honest attempt to improve waste management and lessen the burden of nuclear waste on society, it is a reckless attempt to paper over the hazards of waste disposal and achieve industry aims.

The nuclear industry has been searching for a long-term disposal method for 60 years. Deep disposal has dominated the research effort put into the management of highly radioactive nuclear waste for over 30 years and takes centre stage in the proposed directive. The Commission claims a scientific consensus has been reached and construction should proceed. However, it makes no reference to scientific studies and has not ordered a literature review of research (for more information see Rock Solid? - A scientific review of geological disposal of high-level radioactive waste, Genewatch UK, 2010, see Nuclear Monitor 717, 8 October 2010). The risk is that a sub-standard Commission proposal leads member states to invest heavily in facilities which fail with costly results, both financially and environmentally. The documents do not propose to shield deadly waste from future human interference and there are no measures to monitor and retrieve waste in case of leaks.

The proposal sets out to deal with an environmental issue, yet under its ‘impact assessment’ section rules out the need for any environmental impact assessment. It also underestimates the large potential costs of long-term radioactive waste management, masking the true cost of nuclear power. The document presents no ‘plan B’ in case the scientific/engineering uncertainties are not overcome.

The proposal fails to set standards for so-called ‘authorised emissions’ allowing harmful radioactive waste from reprocessing plants and power stations to be released into the environment. Additionally, both the newly proposed Euratom directive and the EU Directive 2006/21/EC (covering waste from extractive industries) point to each other for the management of waste from uranium mining, meaning that the sector falls between the gap and is in effect unregulated. Many regions and even human settlements are blighted by radioactive waste from uranium mining, such as in Australia, the Americas, Central Asia and Africa. Additionally, the proposal fails to safeguard against international disposal sites being created, exposing less developed parts of Europe to the possibility of becoming ‘nuclear waste dumping grounds’.

Out of line with EU hazardous waste laws
The major omission in the Commission’s proposal is any attempt to harmonise radioactive waste legislation with laws covering other hazardous wastes. The Commission should integrate basic principles from EU hazardous waste legislation into this new law. This would require the EU to implement the precautionary principle and oblige firms to only use the best available technologies for nuclear related infrastructure and phase-out processes that produce waste but are not essential. In effect, this omission creates a far less stringent policy for radioactive waste, despite it being one of the most hazardous waste categories.

Civil society marginalised
Input from outside the nuclear industry amounts to two out of 17 pages. Arguments from environmentalists, concerned citizens and local municipalities were marginalized as stemming from a “fundamental opposition towards nuclear energy” instead of being judged on their merits. That the logical consequence of many of those arguments may be a phase-out of nuclear energy should not be a reason to, in effect, exclude them from the public consultation.

Greenpeace welcomes areas of the proposal showing greater transparency, greater independence of nuclear waste authorities and an obligation to implement the polluter pays principle, though questions remain how the Commission wants to secure this. Greenpeace also welcomes the obligation placed on member states to work out radioactive waste policies and implementation plans, but urges the Commission to guarantee that these are based on science and responsibility towards people and environment in this and future generations, and not, as seems to be the case now, on the short-term interests of the nuclear industry.

During his November 3, press conference, Energy Commissioner Guenther Oettinger declared repeatedly that he was of the opinion that waste would have to be reachable for inspection and oversight at all times. This could mean that the Commission is prepared to include retrievability in the conditions for radioactive waste management, a possibility that was welcomed by Greenpeace. His spokeswoman Marlene Holzner, however, retracted on that during a debate on BBC Newshour on the same day in which she limited oversight for the period in which a deep geological disposal site is filled up.

The proposal will now be forwarded to the European Parliament, where it will be discussed in the ITRE (Energy) and the ENVI (Environment) Committees for advisory comment. Parliament cannot take binding decisions under the Euratom Treaty. The proposal also will be tabled to the European Council, where it will first be discussed in the Atomic Questions Group (ATO), which consists of nuclear experts from the 27 EU Member States. The final version of the directive will then be adopted in a formal session of the General Affairs Council in about half a year from now.

Source: Greenpeace Briefing, 26 October 2010; personal mail Jan Haverkamp, 6 November 2010
Contact: Jan Haverkamp – dirty energy campaigner Greenpeace EU Unit.