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The black boxes of nuclear waste strategy

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
Christiana Mauro

How much radioactive waste is stored on our planet? According to the world's first nuclear waste report, we don't really know. We do know that nearly seven decades of civil and military reactor programmes have led to large stockpiles of waste, and that its volume is growing; we also know that our ignorance is vast, and there appears to be no responsible solution to the problem.

The systems delivering management strategies vary tremendously from one country to another, as do the range of authorities responsible for their management; so establishing volumes, risks and costs is no small task. When we add to this complexity national variations in both terminology and conceptual frameworks, a cross-country comparison becomes a Gordian knot. States don't just differ in their classification systems ‒ they also follow different regulatory and safety procedures; the same applies to funding schemes, accounting measures, inventory reports and liability strategies. The European Commission is reportedly not able to make sense of the member state reports it receives, due to the extent of the anomalies. The commission has stated that it would consider taking measures to harmonize inventory reporting; it also expressed interest in finding ways to encourage states to secure appropriate financing options to pay for waste management.1 Nuclear Waste Directive implementation failures have led to the launch of infringement procedures against 25 out of 28 member states.2

While Russia offers practially no useful information about its nuclear waste inventory, the data from Belgium and the Netherlands are out of date, and the quality of Slovakia's reports are so bad that they couldn't be used for the WNWR report. Together with Euratom and national supervisory bodies, the Commission may wish to look into the codification of reporting methodologies in order to loosen the Gordian knot somewhat. The question of safety is ultimately a matter of implementation, and one of the functions of EU bodies is to indicate where implementation problems lie.

Criteria: the basis for informed decision-making

The World Nuclear Waste Report 2019 – Focus Europe (WNWR) offers criteria by which some of the evident lapses in reporting and departures from minimum obligations can be identified and remedied.3 It also provides estimated costs for the management, storage and disposal of nuclear waste. While the facts and figures are plentiful, the historical and social factors that have led to such a wide range of definitions, practices and taxonomies receive close attention as well.

As communities push for a greater say in energy and waste management decisions, such an overview is welcome. Environmental NGOs and individuals are also demanding information that will help them protect their access rights; they want to know what criteria their governments are using in the waste policy-making process, according to Miranda Schreurs, Chair of Germany's Civil Society Board. The German body is trying to facilitate access to energy decision-making models and create participatory processes that so far "have failed across the board". It is also currently lobbying for the introduction of legislation to ensure public access to comprehensive geological assessments.4

Without access to information in the hands of public and private entities that are very often reluctant to share it, communities cannot form evidence-based opinions or participate in the waste site selection process. While nuclear environmental impact assessment and licensing processes are gradually becoming clearer, the nuclear waste decision-making processes remain opaque.

Nuclear states tend to endorse shallow, interim solutions; this enables them to follow the wait-and-see strategy when dealing with the end of the nuclear fuel cycle. For this reason the development of safe systems for the final management of hazardous nuclear by-products is a challenge that is not being allocated the resources it requires. Remarkably, the WNWR reports that there is no country in the world that has "closed the gap between secured funds and cost estimates"; moreover, government estimates of nuclear power plant decommissioning and waste storage costs appear to be wide of the mark.

According to the first instrument to regulate the safety of radioactive waste and spent fuel, which entered into force in 2001, all of the contracting parties are obliged to provide adequate financial resources for the management of spent fuel and radioactive waste; they have also committed to limiting the extent to which the waste problem is bequeathed to future generations.

There appears to be no safe, sustainable or cost-effective solution for managing nuclear waste once it's been generated; nuclear waste is unique in that regard. These are sad, serious truths. Yet there are other, still more discouraging truths that must be confronted.

Is the problem managable?

What are we do with radioactive waste? This is an empirical question which has been pondered for the better part of a century without any clear solution. A responsible approach to the management of radioactive waste and spent nuclear fuel does not involve burying high-level radioactive material under the sea bed or launching it into space; it requires a repository site, which brings with it major public relations obstacles.

The Swiss geologist and former member of the Federal Commission for Nuclear Safety Marcos Buser has been working on the problem of nuclear waste disposal for 45 years, and believes that our present state of knowledge is one of near-complete ignorance. Buser sees no near-term solution in sight, and claims, suggestively, that the problem cannot be "too big to fail" ‒ as societies will ultimately be forced to finance a solution ‒ but it may very well be "too big to manage".

Disposal strategies are not reassuring

One's opinion about nuclear waste depends largely on what one thinks nuclear waste is. Definitional and categorical inconsistencies abound, as the WNWR illustrates.

The storage of nuclear waste occurs at a number of processing stages and at various levels of concentration; it is subject to different duration and, worryingly, considerably different safety standards (even among EU member states). Storage of radioactive waste can range from secure laboratory cabinets and facilities built for such purposes, to plastic bags5 (Hungary) and containers susceptible to radioactive leakage after heavy rainfall6 (Japan). The US uses waste canisters that may crack and leak, and are not properly maintained, properly inspected or even reparable.7

It ought to be apparent that some storage methods are not as good as others, especially for purposes of sustainability. But many of the methods in common use today are simply no good at all–for any purpose. Interim storage solutions are not a remedy, as they pose hazards of their own.

While deep geological disposal is the solution that the majority of experts favour for the final disposal of the most dangerous radioactive waste, the ifs, ands, and buts of the conditions of this scheme are considerable. Many in the climate justice movement are not in agreement with the concept. Finland is constructing such a facility with the hope that it will be operational by 2023, but currently there is still no country that operates a deep geological disposal facility.

Former Green MEP Rebecca Harms writes in the WNWR that deep geological disposal is "one of the most ambitious and most difficult tasks on earth." According to the Union of Concerned Scientists the search for a final repository site in the United States has "stalled".8 And while national statutory deadlines for identifying a long-term storage solution come and go, governments continue to address the problem of nuclear spent fuel and waste in an abstract way - aware that society is facing a crisis, but ignoring it.

Access to data is crucial

The data sources energy modellers need access to are not so much withheld by the state but rather are held by commercial entities subject to statutory reporting.

The Aarhus Convention guarantees access to data related to the environment in most jurisdictions, but the barriers preventing public access to nuclear waste data are various and considerable. To give one example, the WNWR is published under a Creative Commons CC‑BY‑NC‑ND‑3.0 license, but to be useful to energy modellers and analysts, code and data require a public domain waiver. The license is neither open, nor data‑capable, nor international. Open energy modelling communities help to create tools, conduct assessments and develop models that enable innovative solutions. As civil society begins to conduct its own public policy analyses, these details are important. Robbie Morrison, a Berlin-based open data campaigner, asserts that organizations such as Europe's Project Drawdown9 or the Open Energy Modelling Initiative (openmod)10 are increasingly challenging institutions to offer more access to energy policy data. Openmod writes that at present "most energy models are black boxes – even to fellow researchers," but an energy modelling revolution may be underway.

The taxpayer burden for nuclear waste is heavier than it should be, as the polluter-pays principle is not being observed. And the need for a more democratic management of energy systems is indisputable. But while the idea of society seizing the reins of energy policy-making sounds terrific, civil society groups are only as powerful as their resources; a strategic political vision is necessary to address operational priorities and identify funding mechanisms to meet this historic challenge. The transparency of energy policy decisions will be crucial to public acceptance of waste management models.

Openmod's 10th European Workshop will take place at the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin on January 18, 2020.11

Christiana Mauro is a legal advocate based in Budapest who works with Nuclear Transparency Watch and Common Earth (Poland).


1. Report from the Commission to the Council and the European Parliament on progress of implementation of Council Directive 2011/70/Euratom and an inventory of radioactive waste and spent fuel present in the Community's territory and the future prospects. Brussels, 15.5.2017, COM(2017) 236 final,

2. Nuclear waste management in the EU: Implementation of Directive 2011/70/EURATOM Joint Project Assessment Report,

3. World Nuclear Waste Report 2019 – Focus Europe,

4. Nationales-begleitgremium, Warum brauchen wir im Verfahren zur Auswahl eines Endlagerstandorts ein Geologiedatengesetz? (Geology Data Act: Why do we need a Geology Data Act to select a repository location?),

5. Átlátszó, Tritium Leak and Waste Packaged in Plastic Bags: Questions about the Nuclear Cemetery,

6. Japan Times, Dozens of bags of radioactive waste still missing in Fukushima three weeks after intense typhoon,

7. Nuclear Regulatory Commission has no "Plan B" for a canister failure at San Onofre,

8. Union of Concerned Scientists, Nuclear Waste,

9. Project Drawdown,

10. Open Energy Modelling Initiative,

11. Energy bridge meeting,