New EU nuclear waste law allows export abroad

Hayley Harland
Tuesday, 19th July 2011

The EU have just adopted the ‘radioactive waste and spent fuel management directive’ meaning that radioactive waste will be buried in secure bunkers in the future. Is this a ‘major achievement for nuclear safety in the EU’, as EU energy commissioner Guenther Oettinger puts it, or will it just make the embodied costs outweigh the net energy gains?

Nuclear power hasn't been the most popular energy source since the Chernobyl disaster. Recent events in Fukushima and Russia's wildfires have simply highlighted the risks and Germany's has controversially agreed to phase out nuclear power by 2022, a political decision of huge significance for the greens. Despite this, Europe still has 143 reactors that come part and parcel with 50,000 cubic metres of radioactive waste each year (according to nuclear industry body Foratom), currently stored in bunkers and warehouses, taking years to cool.

EU Member states will now have to draw up plans before 2015 for 'deep geological repositories' – caverns buried between 100 and 700 meters underground, built in clay or granite rock.

But this is in no way an instant solution. "At present, such deep geological repositories do not exist anywhere in the world nor is a repository in construction outside of the EU," Oettinger's team stated. "It takes currently a minimum of 40 years to develop and build one."

The plan to build these nuclear caverns requires that the safety standards drawn up by the International Atomic Energy Agency become legally binding.

Oettinger had initially proposed a complete ban on exports of radioactive waste to other countries for reprocessing. Ministers have, however, cleverly created a loophole, demanding that waste can be shipped to countries that already have deep geological storage facilities.

"According to already existing EU Directives on the shipment of spent fuels and radioactive waste, the export to African, Pacific and Caribbean Countries as well to Antarctica is already explicitly ruled out."

Rebecca Harms, deputy chief of the European parliament's Green party, said the agreement did not go far enough because it still allows 'the transfer of the European problem of nuclear waste to other countries'. As Greenpeace put it, it makes 'radioactive waste someone else's problem'.

The European energy market is not a level playing field and energy pricing does not reflect the true costs of producing energy from different sources. Countries using nuclear technology have seriously underestimated the full costs of nuclear power. Not a single nuclear power plant has been built without direct or indirect subsidies, paid by taxpayers and inevitably increasing the profits of the nuclear industry. Nuclear power today produces a third of Europe's electricity because of political decisions that created favourable market conditions: Over the last 30 years, the EU's governments spent more than €45 billion on nuclear research.

Further information:

NEF on Nuclear

1 Million Europeans Against Nuclear Power

Greenpeace on the Radioactive Waste Directive

Useful Resources

Articles: Japan After the Earthquake

How Mushrooms Can Clean Up Radioactive Contamination

Book: Zero Carbon Britain 2030 - An Alternative Energy Strategy