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News from the National Academies
Date: June 6, 2001
Contacts: Bill Kearney, Media Relations Officer
Chris Dobbins, Media Relations Assistant
(202) 334-2138; e-mail <news@nas.edu>

For Immediate Release

Societal and Technical Challenges Posed by Nuclear Waste
Call for Attention by World Leaders

WASHINGTON -- Focused attention by world leaders is needed to address the substantial challenges posed by disposal of spent nuclear fuel from reactors and high-level radioactive waste from processing such fuel for military or energy purposes, says a new report from an international committee of the National Academies' National Research Council. The biggest challenges in achieving safe and secure storage and permanent waste disposal are societal, the committee said.

"Difficulties in garnering public support have been seriously underestimated, and opportunities to increase public involvement and to gain trust have been missed," said committee chair D. Warner North, president of NorthWorks Inc., Belmont, Calif. "Waste-management programs around the globe should direct their efforts beyond technical development to emphasize public participation in the decision-making process."

Presently, there are only two feasible options for countries to choose between for safe disposition of spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste, the committee said -- storage on or near the Earth's surface, or placement in deep underground repositories. After four decades of study, the geological repository option remains the only scientifically credible, long-term solution for safely isolating waste without having to rely on active management. Although there are still some significant technical challenges, the broad consensus within the scientific and technical communities is that enough is known for countries to move forward with geological disposal. This approach is sound, the committee said, as long as it involves a step-by-step, reversible decision-making process that takes advantage of technological advances and public participation. For example, geological repositories, such as Yucca Mountain in Nevada, are intended to be controlled and monitored for many decades throughout and some time beyond their operational phase, during which retrieval of waste would be possible if required.

The Research Council initiated the study after observing that many nations were encountering significant difficulties and delays in their plans for geological disposal of nuclear waste. The world's inventory of spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste is growing because of the continued use of nuclear energy, the dismantling of nuclear weapons, and an emphasis on cleaning up sites where these weapons were built. This waste needs to be secured to protect people and the environment from radiation and to prevent material that can be used to build nuclear weapons from falling into the wrong hands, the committee emphasized. And in many countries, a consensus that waste can be managed safely is a prerequisite for the use of nuclear power.

"Properly disposing of this waste will require international collaboration," said committee vice chair Charles McCombie, consultant, Gipf-Oberfrick, Switzerland. "Collaboration at the technical level already exists, but coordination at the strategic and political levels should intensify."

The committee said it believes some internationally shared surface-storage facilities or geological repositories will eventually become a reality, which could benefit nations with small nuclear programs or unfavorable geology for underground disposal.

The United States, Finland, and Sweden have plans to begin placing waste in geological repositories early in this century while other countries, such as Germany, Japan, Switzerland, China, and the United Kingdom, are considering mid-century dates. The Netherlands does not plan to implement geological disposal for at least 100 years and Canada has not made a decision. Likewise, France passed a law specifying that no decision be made before 2006. Russia has identified candidate sites for deep repositories but no timetable has been set for their construction and use. Many countries with small nuclear programs do not yet have plans for long-term disposition of their high-level waste. No country plans to permanently seal a geological repository in less than 50 years. Whether, when, and how to move toward geological disposal are societal decisions that each country must make, the committee said.
Spent nuclear fuel and high-level waste have been kept at storage facilities on the surface or just underneath it since the nuclear age began more than 50 years ago. But the amount of waste, particularly spent fuel, is exceeding the current capacity of existing facilities in many countries, and some storage sites have not performed up to acceptable standards, the report says.

Most current surface-storage facilities are intended to hold waste for 50 to 100 years. If resources were dedicated to their upkeep and expansion, however, they could be a feasible waste-management option for even longer. In addition, because these facilities are designed for easy retrieval of waste, they leave the door open for future options for treatment and disposal. There is no need for nations to rush implementation of permanent disposal as long as waste is managed responsibly in safe and secure surface facilities, the committee said. On the other hand, it emphasized that it is not prudent for a country to pursue only surface storage without also pursuing geological disposition unless the nation can credibly commit to permanent monitoring and active management of surface sites.

The report was sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy, U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and organizations responsible for radioactive waste management in eight other countries. The authoring committee included experts from seven countries; a roster follows. The National Research Council is the principal operating arm of the National Academy of Sciences and National Academy of Engineering. It is a private, nonprofit institution that provides scientific and technical advice under a congressional charter.

Read the full text of Disposition of High-Level Waste and Spent Nuclear Fuel: The Continuing Societal and Technical Challenges for free on the Web, as well as more than 1,800 other publications from the National Academies. Printed copies are available from the National Academy Press; tel. (202) 334-3313 or 1-800-624-6242 or on the Internet at http://www.nap.edu. Reporters may obtain a copy from the Office of News and Public Information (contacts listed above).


NATIONAL RESEARCH COUNCIL
Division on Earth and Life Studies
Board on Radioactive Waste Management

Steering Committee on Disposition of High-Level Radioactive Waste Through Geological Isolation

D. Warner North (chair)
President
NorthWorks Inc.
Belmont, Calif., and
Consulting Professor
Department of Engineering-Economic Systems and Operations Research
Stanford University
Stanford, Calif.

Charles McCombie (vice chair)
Independent Strategic and Technical Adviser
Gipf-Oberfrick
Switzerland

John F. Ahearne1
Director
Sigma Xi Center
Sigma Xi, The Scientific Research Society
Research Triangle Park, N.C., and
Adjunct Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering
Duke University
Durham, N.C.

Robert J. Budnitz
President
Future Resources Associates Inc.
Berkeley, Calif.

Ghislain de Marsily2
Professor of Applied Geology
University of Paris VI, and
Professor
Paris School of Mines
Paris

Lars O. Ericsson
Professor and Head
Department of Geology
Chalmers University of Technology
Gothenburg
Sweden

Peter Fritz
Scientific Director
Centre for Environmental Research
Leipzig
Germany

Roger E. Kasperson
Professor and Executive Director
Stockholm Environment Institute
Stockholm
Sweden

Nikolay P. Laverov
Vice President
Russian Academy of Sciences
Moscow

Jane C.S. Long
Dean
Mackay School of Mines
University of Nevada
Reno

Claire M. Mays
Social Psychologist
Institut Symlog
Cachan
France

Atsuyuki Suzuki
Professor of Nuclear Engineering
University of Tokyo, and
Chairman
Division of Social and Environmental Aspects of Nuclear Energy
Atomic Energy Society of Japan
Tokyo

RESEARCH COUNCIL STAFF

John R. Wiley
Study Director

1 Member, National Academy of Engineering
2 Foreign Associate, National Academy of Engineering