A set of common standards proposed by European Union (EU) Energy Commissioner Guenther Oettinger today could force utilities in the 27-nation bloc to abide by binding rules for the long-term storage of nuclear waste. The proposal chiefly calls for construction of long-term deep geologic storage repositories.

The action was justified by the Euratom Treaty, under which the EU has the legal responsibility to “protect the general public from ionizing radiation,” the EU said. If the rules are approved by the EU’s member governments over the next year, EU countries could be required to draw up disposal plans by 2015. Those plans would then be vetted by the Energy Commission.

According to the European Commission (EC), a total of 143 nuclear power plants operate in 14 EU countries, generating a third of the electricity consumed in the EU—and about 7, 000 cubic meters of radioactive waste each year. Currently, this spent nuclear fuel is being stored at centers close to or near the ground. “But this is a short-term measure to reduce temperature and radioactivity a little,” the body said in a statement.

“As radioactive waste remains hazardous for up to one million years, the safest long term solution is to dispose of it deep underground, where there is less chance of it being affected by accidents, fires or earthquakes.”

The proposed set of common EU safety standards for managing radioactive waste and deep disposal repositories would move EU countries toward this long-term solution, the EC said. The standards are also expected to apply to radioactive waste generated by the medical sector, industry, and research.

If the standards are accepted, they would make the International Atomic Energy Agency’s safety standards legally binding for all governments of the 27-nation bloc. The plan also calls for establishment of an independent authority, which would grant licenses to build and manage the storage sites while also regulating their safety. Agreements between different EU countries to manage shared repositories would be allowed, but exporting waste to countries outside the EU would be banned. Standards would also force governments to inform the public of their plans to build radioactive waste repositories.

In the EU, “more than 85% of the generated volume of radioactive waste constitutes short lived [low and intermediate level waste (LILW)], about 5% long lived LILW and less than 10% [high level waste], which includes both vitrified waste from reprocessing and spent fuel considered as waste,” the EC’s proposal said.

The EU currently has no nuclear spent fuel repositories. Of the 14 EU countries that have nuclear reactors, Finland, Sweden, and France plan to build the region’s first repositories within 15 years.

Sources: POWERnews, EU, EC