‘Euradwaste’ conference debates EU policy on radwaste and public acceptance of nuclear challenges

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Publish date: April 2, 2004

Written by: Soizick Martin

LUXEMBOURG—The European Commission’s proposed “Nuclear Package,” which contains a raft of suggestions regarding nuclear legislation within European Union, will not be adopted prior to the May 1st enlargement of the EU, it was announced at the Euradwaste ‘04 conference earlier this week.

The sixth European Commission, or EC, Euradwaste conference, held on March 29 to April 1, brought together a number of EU authorities, nuclear industry experts and NGOs to debate not only the Nuclear Package, but to discuss methods how better to address issues of communication and cooperation between the authorities and the general public about nuclear issues—particularly that public located in the vicinity of radioactive waste storage facilities.

The European Commission, or EC, has recently moved its nuclear offices from Brussels to Luxembourg, where the conference took place from March 29th to April 1.

Nuclear energy in Europe
Nuclear energy currently accounts for around one third of the EU’s electricity supply. Consequently, radioactive waste management is a priority for EU institutions—not only in terms of generating power, but also in terms of Europe’s future energy supply.

Such was the subject of the EC’s debate-igniting Green Paper “Toward a European Strategy for the Security of Energy Supply,” adopted by the EC in June 2002. The paper laid out the details for a “safe, permanent and publicly acceptable management solution for all nuclear waste” across Europe, and gave rise to many of the EC’s proposals in the Nuclear Package—which have raised equal, if not more, controversy.

But the issue will doubtless become more pressing after 10 new EU Member States—five of them from the former Soviet bloc, and four of them operating outmoded and dangerous Soviet built reactors—join the current 15 EU Member States on May 1st.

At stake in the debate over the Nuclear Package is the fate of waste from the EU’s soon-to-be 154 nuclear power plants—noted Christian Waeterloos, director of nuclear safety and safeguards issues at DG Energy and Transport, or DG TREN, echoing the theme of the EC Green Paper.

“After 1st May, 11 additional plants will have to be taken into account. The EC came to the conclusion that the question of security of supply in Europe was of major importance, but that the energy choices would remain within the competence of the Member States,” said Waeterloos during his opening speech Monday.

“These issues were all part of the negotiations with the candidate countries to the EU’s next enlargement.”

The Nuclear Package
On the heels of the EC Green Paper, the EC adopted the final text of Nuclear Package last year. The Nuclear Package proposed two EU directives on the general principles of nuclear safety that should be followed throughout the Union. Chief among these proposal were the suggestion that each nuclear nation in the EU cite and build deep geologic repositories for radioactive waste within a certain time frame, and that adequate finances be made available for decommissioning nuclear installations.

The major aim of the package was to harmonize the different nuclear practices in each of the EU’s nations, especially the newly-accepted, formerly eastern bloc nations that have a weaker environmental tradition than their western counterparts.

Environmental controversy rages over package
The package quickly caused a hullabaloo in the Brussels arena, the seat of EU power. Environmentalists slammed it as too weak to improve the concrete, day to day nuclear power situation, especially when the package was compared to the already-adopted principles of the International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA. Environmentalists also said the weak Nuclear Package would provide a smokescreen for further nuclear development within the EU.

In January, the European Parliament, or EP, voted in favour of the package in plenary session, though important amendments were eventually made to the EC’s original text. However, because the legal base for this new legislation is the Euratom Treaty—for which there is no codified multi-lateral decision making procedure—the EP has only a consultative role in the future of the Nuclear Package, leaving the Council of Ministers to act as the sole EU legislature.

Will the Nuclear Package be legally binding?
The Nuclear Package presented at the conference was a much more thinned-out version than the original document, said observers, and it remains unclear, if the Nuclear Package is adopted after May 1st, whether it will have the status of binding legislation or simply a non-binding resolution. This is one of the Nuclear Package’s biggest snarls as it makes its way to passage or the dust-bin.

The Euradwaste conference’s first day of discussions was devoted to debate on EU radioactive waste management policies. Proposed legislation on this contained in the Nuclear Package is still under discussion in the Council of Ministers’ Atomic Questions Group, or AQD, in which a blocking minority of the European Union’s current 15 states—Germany, Finland, the United Kingdom, and Sweden—are opposing that the waste directive in the Nuclear Package become binding legislation.

Decommissioning funds dumped
Debates about the proposed Waste Directive among the Council of Ministers’ AQG, the Economic and Social Committee, and the EP led to changes in the original text.

For instance, nuclear decommissioning funds envisaged in the original text received a very negative reaction and are now absent from the current Nuclear Package text. The EP had, in January, lobbied for a stronger text on decommissioning funds.

“In the Waste Directive, the emphasis was put on high-level waste management, but the text covers all other forms of waste,” said Derek Taylor, one of EC’s key nuclear experts behind the development of the Nuclear Package at the Conference, on Monday.

“One key point of the proposed Directive was to have Member States defining a clear program for radioactive waste management. This is also a requirement in the IAEA’s Joint Convention on the Safety of Spent Nuclear Fuel Management and the Safety of Radioactive Waste Management.”

Deep geologic repositories
Another fierce debating point in the Nuclear Package was the time deadlines that it set for building of geologic repositories for nuclear waste that would be imposed on each EU Member State using nuclear power. The countries would have had until 2008 to research and cite the repositories and would have been required to have them up and running by 2018. Member States would also have been required to have fully operational facilities for low-level waste storage by 2013.

These timetables, however, were criticised by many Member States and nuclear experts as unrealistically tight. NGOs, including Bellona, also weighed in, saying the deadlines would not allow adequate time for public consultation and scientific analysis. The timetables were withdrawn from the text of the Nuclear Package presented at the conference.

Taylor said that the EC has been accused of offering deep geologic repositories as the only solution to handling the EU’s radioactive waste.

“But we are not against other solutions, if they exist,” said Taylor.

Other speakers, defending the EC point, emphasised that the consensus of the world nuclear community on radioactive waste containment is that deep geologic burial is the best option as yet discovered.

Other unresolved issuses
Some key issues remain unsolved, and are blocking the Nuclear Package’s passage as a whole. These include questions such as: “What would be the concrete added value of the new EU legislation compared to the current systems, namely those outlined in the IAEA agreement?” and “Would these proposals compromise the authority of Member States?”

The EC should soon publish a new version of the text, taking into account comments from the EP, and on March 31st the AQG was in session to discuss the issue further. Only one thing is sure at the moment: The package will not be adopted before May 1st.

The role of the public in solving radwaste issues
Another key point of the Euradwaste discussions was the importance of the general public’s role in accepting the radioactive waste problem and mobilizing its assistance in overcoming the “Not in My Back Yard,” or NIMBY philosophy of waste handling. The NIMBY complex, dictates that locally produced energy waste be sent far from where the waste was produced and the community that produced it.

Another session of the Euradwaste conference was entitled “Siting a Deep Geological Repository for Spent Fuel – A Technical Endeavour and a Social Challenge.” Among the speakers and panel members were representatives from the different EU Nuclear Industries—France’s Cogema, the Belgian Ondraf/Niras, Slovenia’s Arao and Denmark’s Bmu.

Claes Thegerström, President of the Swedish SKB, for whom the siting of nuclear waste repositories in Europe was closely linked to the acceptance of such repositories by local populations, presented a unique point of view on the topic.

“Since the 70s, the nuclear industry in Sweden has been involved with and created a structure between the different stakeholders," he said at the Conference.

“In the 90s, when the first phase of the programme started, there was clear pressure from the local authorities and the local communities regarding the choice of nuclear waste disposal sites.”

From experience, Thegerström explained that it was important to develop a dialogue with local populations where potential geologic repositories are being investigated in order to build trust. He emphasised that public acceptance should be as high on the list of priorities as the technical aspects of the programme.

This approach differed from that of Bertrand Barré of Cogema, who said misunderstandings with the public arose because it does not comprehend the technical and logistical imperatives of nuclear science. He said that the question of citing and building repositories was urgent, after years of accumulating research.

Nils Bøhmer, The Bellona Foundation’s nuclear specialist, was also present at the conference and sat on a panel entitled “Can NIMBY be overcome?” He insisted, like Thegerström, on the importance of opening a democratic exchange on the geologic repository process and improving the transparency of the decision-making process surrounding it.

“Local communities and NGOs need information and knowledge to have their own opinion on the envisaged plans,” he told the conference.

“We need the resources to verify by ourselves if the situation is objectively safe. And we shouldn’t forget the idea of temporary storage, because the technology will develop further.”

In order to earn public acceptance, and thus rid the debate of the NIMBY syndrome, it is crucial to have all stakeholders in areas surrounding potential geologic repositories—including local populations and civil society movements—participating in the decision-making process.

EU legislation and harmonisation of the current various systems, especially on the eve EU enlargement, can be a tool to improve environmental safety as well as citizens’ rights to a healthy and clean world to live in. But it also must be a priority for EU institutions and the European nuclear industry to improve their communication and collaboration with the real people that are directly affected by their nuclear policies.