Radioactive waste is any waste which emits alpha, beta or gamma radiation. If not managed properly it can be dangerous and there can be a risk of pollution to the environment. It must be stored until the radioactivity has decreased to levels which are no longer dangerous, or disposed of and kept isolated from people and the environment for a very long time. However, not all waste is the same: there are different types according to levels of radioactivity and the length of time for which the waste remains radioactive.
“Short-lived” radioactive waste need only be managed for up to 30 years, after which time levels of radioactivity are negligible. This applies to low-level and some intermediate-level wastes. Other low-level and intermediate-level waste should be placed in a repository for several hundred years, because the radionuclides in the waste are “long-lived”. However, this especially applies to high-level waste and spent nuclear fuel, which will remain radioactive for a much longer time (beyond 100 000 years) and should be isolated from the biosphere in specially-designed containers deep underground in well-chosen geological sites. There are currently programmes underway to build deep underground disposal facilities for this purpose (see press kit on radioactive waste). They are called deep geological repositories.
The objective of a geological repository is to provide protection of humans and the environment from the hazard that the radioactive waste would pose over time. Once waste is emplaced, there is no intention to retrieve it. In general, the geological disposal concept involves treating the waste in order to achieve a suitable physical and chemical form, packaging it inside long-lived engineered barriers emplaced deep underground, and sealing these facilities with appropriate materials. In these underground surroundings, as opposed to the surface environment, conditions remain stable over the long periods needed to allow the radioactivity to decay to a sufficiently low level. This would not require human intervention for the facility to achieve its safety goal.
Deep geological repositories are considered to be a solution to the problem of radioactive waste disposal because they are technically feasible and because no alternative for the long-term disposal of waste has been found.However, bringing to fruition the multi-decades task of siting and developing a repository demands a strong national commitment and a significant regional and local involvement. Delaying work on geological disposal (i.e. by adopting a “wait and see” strategy) would require increasingly more demanding care for the waste and its storage facilities. Waste stored near the surface will be more vulnerable over time to extreme natural events or terrorism than wastes disposed deep underground.
Radioactive waste arises from numerous industrial and medical processes, but the production of nuclear energy creates the most waste. The IAEA estimates that the generation of electricity from a typical 1 000 megawatt nuclear power station produces approximately 300m3 of low and intermediate-level waste per year and some 30 tonnes of high-level, solid, packed waste per year.
Globally, however, it is estimated that nuclear power plants and their fuel cycle support facilities produce 0.4 million tonnes of waste per year (excluding mining and extraction wastes). This is a relatively small amount compared with the volume of hazardous waste produced by other industries: some 400 million tonnes per year.
The cost of radioactive waste management will vary from country to country. Waste management programmes will typically be paid for by a charge on every megawatt of electricity produced, which goes into a fund which is often managed centrally or by a separate national organisation which administers the funds (that fund will accrue interest to constitute the capital required when the waste comes due).
Because the “back-end” is a relatively small part of total costs of nuclear power production, and because of the interest expected to be earned, the contributions required are relatively modest. For example, the United States levies 0.001 USD per kilowatt hour (kWh) on nuclear electricity production. Sweden levies 0.022 SEK, Japan 0.13 JPY, the Czech Republic 0.05 CZK, Bulgaria 3 percent of the electricity bill and Slovakia 6.8 percent. These differences reflect not only differences in national economics but also in the exact cost items covered (i.e. decommissioning is sometimes included and sometimes not). Some countries do not have an explicit levy per kWh of electricity, but they require the waste producers to set aside sufficient funding. This is the case in Switzerland where government controlled trust funds exist for both decommissioning and disposal.
The OECD Nuclear Energy Agency’s Radioactive Waste Management Committee (RWMC) seeks to assist NEA member countries in developing safe, sustainable and societally acceptable strategies for the management of all types of radioactive materials. Much of the RWMC’s work in this respect is focused on the management of long-lived waste and spent fuel. Two working parties contribute to these goals: the Forum on Stakeholder Confidence (FSC) and the Integration Group for the Safety Case (IGSC).
The FSC acts as a forum for multiple stakeholders to work together in addressing the challenges of decision-making in radioactive waste management. By facilitating partnerships between national, regional and local actors, the FSC works towards sustainable decision-making processes on how society can deal with radioactive waste. The IGSC acts as the technical advisory body to the RWMC, and works towards the safety of deep geological disposal facilities. It does this by addressing the technical issues in the design, study and evaluation of waste disposal systems, and by addressing the practical challenges of building a waste repository.
Other NEA Committees also have interests in the field of waste management: the Committee on Radiation Protection and Public Health (CRPPH) and the Nuclear Development Committee (NDC).
Last reviewed: 2 July 2013