EU battles to lock down radioactive waste forever
New proposal would give countries four years to develop timetable, secure financing for disposal sites.
Wed, Nov 03, 2010 at 12:28 PM
SITTING AROUND: 91 containers with highly radioactive waste stand in the temporary storage area for nuclear substances in Gorleben, Germany. (Photo: ZUMA Press)
Half a century after atomic power was first produced in Britain, the European Union's nuclear energy-producing countries stand accused of future negligence without a single "deep geological disposal" site equipped to withstand up to an estimated one million years of decay.
As a result, the EU's executive arm tabled for the third time legislative proposals that would see states pushed to build the kind of facility deep in the earth's crust that it says scientists claim is the only way to protect nature's balance.
"We have to make sure that we have the highest safety standards in the world to protect our citizens, our water and the ground against nuclear contamination," said EU energy commissioner Guenther Oettinger, specifying that depths should be "a minimum of 300 meters (990 feet)."
The proposals immediately fell foul of anti-nuclear Greenpeace, whose "dirty energy" campaigner Jan Haverkamp termed them "sub-standard."
"It would take an engineering genius to safely bury white-hot, highly-dangerous nuclear waste deep underground for longer than mankind has been on the planet," he said.
"We fear a disposal facility could rupture high-level nuclear waste into the water table for hundreds of thousands of years."
Quite simply, added leading German Green EU lawmaker Rebecca Harms, the plans "do not address citizens' concerns given the danger posed by radioactive waste."
Oettinger acknowledged that two similar initiatives were previously batted away by states, but insisted this one "will not be blocked" under post-Lisbon treaty majority voting.
The commission is targeting adoption next year, and said states would then have four years to nail down a "concrete timetable" for constructing facilities, including "the financing schemes chosen."
The commission wants nuclear power plant operators "to put money aside for the financing of future disposals."
Producers would not be allowed to export nuclear waste to countries outside the EU for final disposal.
Current schemes offering so-called "interim storage" are given a lifespan of "maximal 50-100 years," the commission said, meaning waste "has to be retrieved and repackaged."
Spent fuel and radioactive waste "need continuous maintenance and oversight," it said.
As the material is typically near the surface, "there is in addition a risk of accidents, including airplane crashes, fires or earthquakes."
Each year, 7,000 cubic meters (247,000 cubic feet) of "high-level" waste that cannot be re-used are produced in the EU, and by 2020, a definitive solution must be found for 1.8 million cubic metres.
Once the rules are adopted, Brussels would be able to fine states that miss targets.
Finland plans to have the sort of repository the commission says science recommends operational in 2020, Sweden in 2023 and France in 2025, Oettinger's office said.
There are 143 nuclear power reactors in use across 14 of the EU's 27 states, with another two, Italy and Poland, planning to build their first.
Not every country would need to host a disposal site, should cross-border public support emerge for sharing.
Most European nations have settled on maintaining nuclear energy at the core of their power needs for coming generations, as oil threatens to run dry and new green technologies have yet to deliver their full potential.
The first nuclear plant to enter service in the EU was Calder Hall, which came on line in northwest England in 1956.
Copyright 2010 AFP Global Edition