Siting radioactive waste repositories is considered as one of the most difficult to solve problems in waste management, so one could think it would make sense for produces of radioactive waste and waste management organizations to limit the number of repositories. For politicians and waste management authorities, the idea of a shared repository is, at least intuitively, connected more to export than to import of waste. However, it could well be that international (sometimes referred to as 'regional') repositories, could increase the siting problem, in stead of easing it. The few initiatives so far all have had to cope with fierce local opposition, putting an end to those attempts.
International repositories have been discussed at least since the early 1970s,(*01) but in the 1990 a number of initiatives made the headlines. In June 1997, in the openings speech of a IAEA symposium, Director General Blix said that international repositories should be 'examined'.(*02)
In 1995, the President of the Marshall Islands proposed hosting a storage and disposal facility, but the idea ran into strong opposition from other Pacific states and the United States. There was also fierce local opposition.(*03) The idea was dropped when the government changed.(*04)
Also in the mid 1990s, a U.S. based group, U.S. Fuel and Security, with support from the Russian Ministry of Atomic Energy, initiated a scheme involving fuel storage on a Pacific Island — initially Wake Island and then later Palmyra Island.(*05) The scheme was met with strong opposition and was not pursued further. The Pacific Islands Forum, formerly the South Pacific Forum, a political grouping of sixteen independent and self-governing states in the Pacific, condemned the idea of using Palmyra as a “dumping ground for nuclear waste.”(*06)
A third project was initiated by organizations in several countries, including Pangea Resources, a British-based company. In November 1998 an anti-nuclear activist was given a video that promoted Australia as a site for an international nuclear waste dump. The video was produced by the US company Pangea Resources. It had been leaked to Friends of the Earth in the UK, and they had passed it on for release in Australia. The video extolled the virtues of a privately run, long term, high-level nuclear waste dump for outback South or Western Australia. The 15-minute video built an argument that nuclear waste is a problem that will not go away, that the best way of dealing with it is putting it somewhere in stable rocks, that these rocks must be away from population centers, in a country with strong democratic institutions, and that there are only a few places in the world where these conditions apply, and ... Australia seemed to be the best choice! Although the proposal had been on the table for several years, discussions had been behind closed doors. Until the "unauthorised" release of the video, Pangea’s operations had been "private business."
Political opposition in Australia stopped further progress on the scheme.
In 2002, Pangea Resources rebranded itself as ARIUS − the Association for Regional and International Underground Storage − and it is still scheming to build an international high-level nuclear waste dump.(*07)
Shortly after the Fukushima accident it became public that Japan and the United States had discussions with Mongolian officials, just before the March 21 accident, to jointly build a spent nuclear fuel storage facility in Mongolia to "serve customers of their nuclear plant exporters".(*08) This led the Mongolian authorities to issue a statement denying plans to bring nuclear waste to the country and pointing out that “Article 4.1 of Mongolia’s law on exporting and banning import and trans-border shipments of dangerous waste unequivocally bans import of dangerous waste for the purpose of exploiting, storing, or depositing.”(*09)
On September 13 Mongolian President Elbegdorj, in response to reports of ongoing secret talks with both Japan and the U.S., issued a presidential order banning negotiations and abandoning the plans. On September 21, President Elbegdorj once again affirmed in the United Nations General Assembly that "Construction plans in Mongolia will absolutely not be accepted."(*10)
For all countries, building a national repository is a major challenge and extremely expensive. Some countries are not even in the process of developing a national repository and are looking for ways to work together to address the common challenges. In Western Europe, one of the first initiatives to explore 'shares solutions' was formed in 1992.(*11) Lately, a number of countries in the European Union consider the option of shared repositories following the experience of the SAPIERR project (Strategic Action Plan for Implementation of European Regional Repositories). Since 2003 the EC has funded SAPIERR I and II.(*12) Based on the SAPIERR findings, a Working Group has been created in early 2009 to enable the establishment of a European Repository Development Organisation (ERDO), which would contribute to develop the concept of a shared repository as a complement to the national facilities being developed. Currently, Austria, The Netherlands, Poland, Slovakia, Italy, Lithuania and Slovenia participate in this Working Group. The ERDO-WG is a project managed by the national waste agency of the Netherlands, Covra, and the Arius Association on behalf of its Members.(*13) Arius, as noted above, was called Pangea until 2002.
In July 2011, the European Commission adopted a directive for disposing of spent fuel, including radioactive wastes from nuclear power plants and from medical and research facilities. It sets compulsory and legally enforceable standards for all European Union member states. It does not specify specific disposal strategies, but it does permit two or more member states to share a disposal facility and also allows exports of spent fuel and radioactive waste — but not to African, Caribbean, or Pacific countries.(*14)
ERDO model for Gulf states and SE Asia?
Arius has received grants from two charitable foundations in the USA to enable the Association to extend the concept of regional, multinational cooperation to other parts of the world. Arius has explored the feasibility of adapting and applying the ERDO model to other global regions and concluded that, of various possible areas worldwide, the regions that may show the most immediate promise and potential interest are the Arabian Gulf region and South-East Asia.(*15)
Dumping waste on the poor
As long as initiatives for regional repositories exist, opponents point out that it can turn out to be an ethically risky idea. Countries that up until now have indicated some potential interest in being a host, have always been weak states that are in urgent need for money and / or do not have a developed civil society. A connection between poverty and accepting foreign waste is an ethical concern and should not be allowed: the shift from commercial to voluntary cooperation could partly answer this concern, but the debate on compensation needs carefully guarded.
*01- Bulletin Of The Atomic Scientists: Putting Radioactive Waste on Ice: A Proposal for an International Radionuclide Depository in Antarctica, January 1973
*02- Nuclear Fuel: Examine international repositories, Blix urges fuel cycle symposium, 16 June 1997, p.15-16
*03- Pacific News Bulletin: Marshall Islands: Nuke waste dump concerns, June 1997
*04- Giff Johnson: Marshalls put a freeze on N-waste plans, Marshall Islands Journal, June 1997
*05- Der Spiegel: Ab auf die Insel (Away, on the island), 15 July 1996
*06- Ken Silverstein: Nuclear Burial in the Pacific, The Progressive, Vol. 61, No. 11, November 1997, pp. 32-34.
*07- More information, and the video, is available at: www.foe.org.au/anti-nuclear/issues/oz/import-waste
*08- Reuters: Japan, U.S. plan nuclear waste storage in Mongolia –paper, 8 May 2011
*09- Embassy of Mongolia in Vienna, Press release, 10 May 2011, www.embassymon.at/news/emb_news_53.html
*10- News Watch 145: Mongolian government drops nuclear disposal site plans, CNIC, Nov/Dec 2011
*11- Nuclear Fuel: Groups in western-Europe looking at idea of regional waste solutions, 28 September 1992, p.3-4
*12- Ewoud Verhoef, Charles McCombie, Neil Chapman: Shared, regional repositories: developing a practical implementation strategy, 2009
*13- ERDO Website: www.erdo-wg.eu
*14- European Council: Council Directive 2011/70/Euratom establishing a Community framework for the responsible and safe management of spent fuel and radioactive waste, Brussels, 19 July 2011
*15- Arius website: www.arius-world.org/