In many countries nuclear energy is considered a viable option to address climate change and air pollution, while ensuring access to cost-effective and resilient energy supplies to support economic growth and human development. However, there has been debate in a few places about the "sustainability" of nuclear energy. Some assert that high-level waste and spent nuclear fuel an insurmountable challenge for which no solution exists — thereby, in their view, making nuclear energy "unsustainable".
The NEA organised an expert roundtable discussion on 12 November 2020 on the sustainability of nuclear energy in the context of the management and disposal of high-level radioactive waste. The event brought together experts from around the world who discussed the progress made in managing nuclear waste and the development and implementation of deep geological repositories. In addition to addressing the scientific and technical issues, they also explored the societal challenges in this area.
Radioactive waste results from many different activities in health care, industry, research, and power production. All such waste must be managed safely, with the protection of human health and the environment as the highest priority.
The government of each country has the absolute right and responsibility to implement the energy and environmental policies it believes are best. In the case of the disposal of radioactive waste, it is paramount that these debates should be informed by objective facts. The NEA, therefore, recently published a report that summarises the current state of knowledge with regards to the management of high‑level radioactive waste and its disposal in deep geological repositories.
The report concluded that nuclear waste is managed safely and effectively around the world and there is a strong scientific consensus regarding the ability of deep geological repositories to support the safe disposal of high-level radioactive waste. After decades of research, analyses and engineering tests, the international scientific community is confident that placing high-level radioactive waste in deep geological repositories is both safe and effective.
Many NEA member countries are engaged in the development of deep geological repositories for the final disposal of spent fuel and radioactive waste. Together with the United States Department of Energy and the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry of Japan, the NEA organised international roundtable discussions during 2019 and 2020 on the final disposal of high-level radioactive waste and spent fuel. At these meetings, policy makers from 15 countries and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) exchanged knowledge about public understanding and technological development related to final disposal.
Key takeaways from the Expert Roundtable
What considerations remain to be addressed in preparing for transition from the construction of deep geological repositories to their operation?
In transitioning from the construction of deep geological repositories to their operation, one of the most important things to manage is the huge organisational evolution from an R&D phase, through construction and finally to an operating organisation. As expertise and skill portfolios in these phases differ very much, implementers need to add new competencies and resources as necessary. Strategic resource and competency management should take into account the long timescales involved.
By the same token, implementers also need to manage the knowledge transfer from the construction to the operational stage. It is crucially important to have a robust system for data, information and knowledge management in order to have very accurate records of the transition, the waste in place, and any incidents during operation.
Read the NEA report Preservation of Records, Knowledge and Memory Across Generations: Final Report of the RK&M Initiative
It is also necessary to ensure a materials aging management strategy early in the project, especially for interim storage facilities located in harsh environmental conditions. This would allow effective monitoring of the performance and the aging of fuel assemblies and rods, and ensure the easy and safe transport of these materials into an operational repository.
What is the role that each stakeholder (regulator, implementer, policy maker and local communities) should play in the process of implementing any radioactive waste management solution? How should government engage with stakeholders at the local, regional, and national levels?
The development and implementation of a deep geological repository requires technical and scientific competence; however, stakeholder engagement is vital to determining the success of the repository project. A robust decision-making process to develop deep geological repositories requires and open and transparent approach that involves all stakeholders. Governments, implementers and regulators should ensure that the public has access to all necessary information and understands the background behind the project. They should also remain empathetic with the public’s concerns.
As the timescales for the development and implementation of a deep geological repository are rather long, stakeholder engagement should be recognised as a long-term process that occurs continually throughout the decision-making process and the lifecycle of a deep geological repository. Involving younger stakeholders and ensuring knowledge transfer between generations is imperative as younger generations will inherit the project in the future.
A government’s primary role is to define the policies relating to the development and implementation of deep geological repositories. They also have a key role in designing an open and transparent decision making process and in promoting communication and engagement with stakeholders.
What is the role of international cooperation in advancing the development of deep geological repositories?
The role of international co-operation is also of paramount importance in the management of high-level radioactive waste and spent nuclear fuel disposal programmes. International dialogue at the strategic and policy levels can help achieve national solutions through the exchange of information in the implementation of policies and in regulatory oversight.
International co-operation is especially beneficial for countries at the early stages of the siting process as it facilitates the exchange of experience and knowledge in both technical and social aspects. New national projects can utilise the lessons learnt about what has and has not worked elsewhere in terms of R&D and public communications.
International collaboration can also strengthen the R&D and technological capabilities in deep geological disposal of radioactive waste by creating opportunities to share available resources to address common challenges. National research programmes can save costs and time and significantly benefit from working together and sharing existing facilities.
How do scientific and technological developments support the back end of the nuclear fuel cycle?
New nuclear technologies that are being developed today need to consider the back-end of the fuel cycle. Reactor and fuel cycle technologies must be developed together as a system, with waste optimisation and minimisation among the main objectives. Spent fuel reprocessing and recycling of uranium and plutonium are also good examples of a sustainable circular economy.
What role does radioactive waste management play in ensuring the sustainability of nuclear energy?
Deep geological disposal of high-level radioactive is a safe solution, but, in many cases, its implementation is slowed by a lack of clear goals and an effective programme of stakeholder engagement to build public support. Despite the socio-political challenges faced by some countries, the scientific consensus today is that deep geological repositories are a safe and effective approach to permanently disposing of spent fuel and high-level radioactive waste.