Brussels - With mankind confronted by an energy crisis and climate change, nuclear power is back on the scene. But despite excellent energy efficiency and low CO2 emissions, nuclear fission still leaves us with the delicate problem of radioactive waste. A typical European response in this area is the Belgian model.
|Copyright: EWN GmbH / BMU|
According to the World Nuclear Association, some 237 nuclear reactors will be built across the world between now and 2030. With 80 percent of nuclear waste coming from these reactors, the issue of waste management is more relevant than ever. The remaining 20 percent comes from medical applications (detection and treatment of pathologies), agricultural use (elimination of bacteria) and scientific research.
But what is radioactive waste? According to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), it is “any matter for which no use is foreseen, and which contains radionuclides in concentrations greater than the values that the authorities regard as permissible”.
An EU directive exists defining radiation protection standards, but the actual management of nuclear waste remains a national competence. A joint convention of 1997 simply states that each country will manage its own waste.
“This is a working definition”, says Jean-Paul Minon, Director General of the Organisme national des déchets radioactifs et des matières fissiles enrichies (ONDRAF) (BE). “Like with municipal waste, it is the owner who decides what is of no use. In Belgian hospitals, the radioactive sources used in cobalt therapy are decommissioned as soon as their irradiation power has decreased by half, because this means longer exposure times for patients, even though these sources can clearly still save many lives. We gladly donate them to third world countries, providing they pick up the cost of transport.”
“There is a widespread popular conception that countries already bury their radioactive waste”, notes ONDRAF spokesperson Émile Biesemans. “But this is absolutely not the case. European countries are still carrying out tests in this area to ensure the feasibility of this type of storage. We can consider that Europe has begun tackling the question in time, because Class C waste requires a long period of cooling – at least 60 years – in a tank or on the surface before geological storage”.
Right now the EU has 10 out of the world’s 14 underground laboratories. One of the first, built in 1980, is the HADES – High-Activity Disposal Experiment Site - underground laboratory based in Mol (BE). The scientific research centre is located some 225 metres underground in a layer of Boom clay, seen as a potentially appropriate host geological formation for longlife highly radioactive waste. The site hosts various European programmes examining the hydrogeological, geomechanical and geochemical feasibility of deep storage. The results are allowing scientists to fine-tune their forecasts and their evaluations of the short and longterm modelling.
In 2010, a 10-year thermal experiment entitled PRACLAY – Preliminary demonstration test for clay disposal of high-level radioactive waste – will be initiated at Mol.
More information on nuclear waste can be found at ec.europa.eu. Quelle: Research Information Centre