Final storage of radioactive waste and spent fuel

A Euratom Directive obliges all EU Member States to set up national disposal programmes. These programmes also have to be subject to a Strategic Environmental Assessment.

For comprehensive information on respective cross-border procedures, visit the website of the Environment Agency Austria (Umweltbundesamt).

Also at a European level, Austria has made it clear on several occasions that the unresolved issue of disposal conflicts with the energetic utilisation of nuclear energy. Already-existing amounts of spent fuel and radioactive waste must, however, in any event be stored, treated and ultimately disposed of according to the state of the art of science and technology.

At a European level, Council Directive 2011/70/Euratom establishing a Community framework for the responsible and safe management of spent fuel and radioactive waste has, for the first time, created a framework of European law. The Directive lays down minimum standards and obliges all EU Member States to set up a national programme for the implementation of a spent-fuel and radioactive-waste-disposal policy.

Basically, radioactive waste is subdivided into long-lived and short-lived waste, and into low-level, intermediate-level and high-level waste. To which adds spent fuel in cases where direct final storage – and no reprocessing – is provided for. For the latter as well as for high-level and long-lived intermediate-level waste, currently, as a rule, a deep geological repository is regarded as “state-of-the-art”, even if such – inter alia due to a requirement of providing safe containment for several hundred thousand years – is far from agreed among experts. When it comes to deep repositories, one must also make the distinction between retrievable storage – i.e. the repository remains accessible and must thus be monitored – and non-retrievable storage – i.e. the repository is sealed after a potentially long observation phase. Low-level and intermediate-level waste is also frequently transported to near-surface final repositories. The fact is that, to this day, there is not a single final repository for spent fuel and radioactive waste in operation globally. 

Potential risks depend on the type and technical design of the repository, but also on the meteorological, geological and hydrological (surface and deep waters) circumstances.  

After the Swiss population rejected a deep geological repository site selected according to purely technical criteria, the country is currently seeing a multi-stage and long-term site selection procedure involving international experts, regional authorities, the population, and neighbouring states.  Site search is governed in the “Deep Geological Repositories Sectoral Plan”. It takes place in three stages in which the selection of the site areas is narrowed down step-by-step. At the end of each stage, the Federal Council takes a decision on how to proceed. The deep geological repository for low-level and intermediate-level waste is to be commissioned in 2050. The deep geological repository for high-level waste is to be commissioned in 2060. Austria is involved in every step on the way. For more information, go to the website of the Environment Agency Austria.

For several years, the Czech Republic has been endeavouring to find a suitable site for a final repository for high-level radioactive waste. The problem has hence been a regular topic on the agenda of bilateral talks.  The Czech disposal scheme which was set up in 2002 and revised in 2017 provides for the long-term intermediate storage of spent fuel with ensuing transport to a deep geological repository. Yet the country has expressly opted for not being tied down to a particular implementation. Construction is to start around 2050, and storage is to be commenced around 2065. Currently, there are nine regions where sites could be potentially located.

These are the locations of Čihadlo, Kraví Hora, Magdaléna, Horka, Čertovka, Březový potok, Hrádek as well as Temelín (Janoch) and Dukovany (Na Skalím), two nuclear power station sites that were added to the then seven sites some time ago. The military sites of Boletice and Hradiště are currently not at the centre of considerations. In the first quarter of 2019, the number of potential sites is expected to be reduced to four sites. After that, more in-depth examinations and test drillings are to be conducted at these sites. The decision for a specific site will not be reached before 2025. For this, an EIA procedure will have to be conducted.

For Austria, a final repository that is close to the border is unthinkable and unacceptable. Austria has emphasised this stance on various occasions, most recently in the course of the SEA procedure on the revision of the Czech disposal scheme. During the SEA procedure, Austria also requested the Czech Republic to stipulate suitable procedures on a bilateral basis in order to ensure adequate involvement of Austria in the future site selection procedure. For comprehensive information on this topic visit the website of the Environment Agency Austria.