Centralizing radioactive waste storage

Nov 15 2012
VERTIC Blog >> National Implementation Measures

Rocío Escauriaza Leal, Madrid

What to do with radioactive waste? Many countries around the world, developed countries in particular, rely heavily on nuclear power, and all face the dilemma of what to do with all the radioactive waste generated. While there is no final solution to permanently eliminate this highly dangerous type of waste, some short- and long-term solutions have been developed.

There are three different types of radioactive waste: low-level waste, such as industrial or medical radioactive wastes; intermediate-level waste, which contains a higher level of radioactivity and comes mostly from ion exchange resins and contaminated materials from reactor decommissioning (these need shielding); and, finally, high-level waste such as spent fuel (these need shielding and isolation).

Radioactivity levels in high-level waste last hundreds of years, so it requires safe and secure storage over long periods of time. There are different approaches to storing radioactive wastes, including above-ground wet and dry storage (which are short-term solutions) and geological disposal as a final disposal solution.

Many countries have adopted a ‘wait and see’ approach and store their radioactive waste in short-term interim facilities. By not committing to final disposition, countries can modify their storage policies as technical developments in the field are achieved. Moreover, the idea of having international repositories is being considered; and European countries are currently exploring the idea of having a European repository.

This is the case for Spain, currently counting with eight nuclear reactors producing 20 per cent of the country’s energy supply. The government took the decision to centralize all radioactive waste generated in an interim storage facility. Commonly known as the ATC (Almacén Temporal Centralizado), the storage facility will be built in Villar de Cuellar, Cuenca, and will be storing intermediate-level and high-level radioactive waste for 60 years.

Indeed many other countries also count with central interim storage facilities, with different approaches: some are being used for dry storage (Habog in the Netherlands or ZZL-Zwilag in Switzerland); others have centralized pools (Clab, Sweden); and some countries have chosen to create a national centralized geological repository as a final solution to their radioactive waste storage (such as is the case for the United Kingdom at Sellafield).

Like other countries, Spain was obliged to take a decision over the storage of radioactive waste, as the on-site storage pools are getting full and France is currently charging 65,000 Euros a day to store 68 capsules of vitrified high-level waste and 664 cubic metres of intermediate level waste in La Hague (Normandy). Once the first module of the ATC becomes operational in 2015 the waste and the money will be returned to Spain (the money being a deposit to cover the cost and ensure the return). 

Centralizing radioactive waste in one interim storage facility can be highly advantageous as it is an economical and secure option. It is cheaper than building several small storage facilities around the country and physical security can be better guaranteed through isolation of the waste, control over any release and monitoring the confined material with regular inspections.

However, an important issue that needs to be taken into account is the fact that the radioactive waste has to be transported to the centralized storage facility. Large shipments traveling long distances to reach the centralized facilities create a security and proliferation risk. It is equally important to ensure safety and security over the radioactive waste at the centralized storage facilities and during transport.



Last changed: Nov 15 2012 at 11:35 AM