There has been, for decades, a worldwide consensus in the nuclear technical community for disposal through geological isolation of high-level waste (HLW), including spent nuclear fuel (SNF).1 However, none of the national programs established to implement geological disposal has yet succeeded in establishing a geological repository and emplacing HLW in it. The large and growing HLW inventory from civilian and military reactor use over nearly 60 years remains in surface facilities intended only for interim storage. The societal and technical challenges of geological disposal and, more broadly, of ongoing management of HLW have turned out to be substantially greater than anticipated when the United States and other nations established programs for HLW disposal starting some decades ago.
The National Research Council of the U.S. National Academies has carried out technical analyses of HLW for more than 40 years, and its reports often have been cited as supporting geological disposal as the preferred option for the management of HLW. The project that produced this report was initiated by the Board on Radioactive Waste Management (BRWM), the part of the National Research Council responsible for studies on nuclear waste, in response to its observation that many nations, including the United States, were encountering significant difficulties and
1 As discussed in Chapter 1, for convenience in terminology the committee uses the term “high-level waste” to include high-level waste from reprocessing nuclear fuels, spent nuclear fuel (SNF) if it is considered to be a waste, and other nuclear materials designated for disposal along with reprocessing waste and SNF.
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Page 1 Executive Summary There has been, for decades, a worldwide consensus in the nuclear technical community for disposal through geological isolation of high-level waste (HLW), including spent nuclear fuel (SNF). 1 However, none of the national programs established to implement geological disposal has yet succeeded in establishing a geological repository and emplacing HLW in it. The large and growing HLW inventory from civilian and military reactor use over nearly 60 years remains in surface facilities intended only for interim storage. The societal and technical challenges of geological disposal and, more broadly, of ongoing management of HLW have turned out to be substantially greater than anticipated when the United States and other nations established programs for HLW disposal starting some decades ago. The National Research Council of the U.S. National Academies has carried out technical analyses of HLW for more than 40 years, and its reports often have been cited as supporting geological disposal as the preferred option for the management of HLW. The project that produced this report was initiated by the Board on Radioactive Waste Management (BRWM), the part of the National Research Council responsible for studies on nuclear waste, in response to its observation that many nations, including the United States, were encountering significant difficulties and 1 As discussed in Chapter 1, for convenience in terminology the committee uses the term “high-level waste” to include high-level waste from reprocessing nuclear fuels, spent nuclear fuel (SNF) if it is considered to be a waste, and other nuclear materials designated for disposal along with reprocessing waste and SNF.
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Page 2 delays in their plans for geological disposal of HLW. The study committee includes scientists from several nations, as well as a variety of disciplinary backgrounds, and the study has addressed both the societal and the technical aspects of HLW management. In particular, the study addresses the questions of whether and when to implement disposal of HLW through geological isolation, rather than focusing exclusively on how to implement geological disposal. This report is intended to provide elected officials and policymakers, interested parties among the public, and those professionally involved with HLW with an informative overview and with specific insights to aid planning and decision making. The study committee, with assistance from representatives of the agencies sponsoring the study, organized and held a workshop in November 1999, which was attended by more than 200 experts from 17 countries. The study committee has used the deliberations at the workshop and other sources of information available to it to prepare this report. This Executive Summary provides concise statements of the principal findings, conclusions, and recommendations in the report. Chapter 1 serves as an introduction, and Chapter 2 and Chapter 3 provide expanded but focused discussion of the findings, conclusions, and recommendations. Chapter 4, Chapter 5, Chapter 6, Chapter 7, Chapter 8 through Chapter 9 provide additional information supporting the discussion in Chapter 2 and Chapter 3. Because of the international focus of this study, the recommendations in this report are not specific to any country and are not addressed to any given agency. PRINCIPAL FINDINGS AND CONCLUSIONS The following brief discussion presents the committee's principal findings and conclusions, which are described in detail in Chapter 2. Today's growing inventory of HLW requires attention by national decision makers. The present situation in the management of radioactive wastes worldwide is one in which—with some important exceptions—safety and security are being achieved by storage, often at or near the facility that produced the waste. Although quantities are minor compared with toxic wastes from other industrial activities, the inventories, particularly of spent fuel, are increasing in many countries beyond the capacity that can be stored in existing facilities. Measures must be taken to deal with this. Moreover, a segment of the public holds concerns and fears that radioactive wastes present an unmanageable threat. The challenge is not just to identify options that are deemed suitable by the technical experts, but also to assure that the decision processes and waste management technologies chosen have broad public support. The feasible options are monitored storage on or near the earth's surface and geological disposition. Safe and secure surface storage is
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Page 3 technically feasible as long as those responsible for it are willing and able to devote adequate resources and political attention to maintaining and expanding the storage facilities, as has been shown by decades of experience. The major uncertainty is in the confidence that future societies will continue to monitor and maintain such facilities. It is not prudent to pursue only storage, without development of the geological disposal option, unless a society believes it can credibly commit to permanent maintenance of its storage facilities. Geological disposal remains the only long-term solution available. After four decades of study, geological disposal remains the only scientifically and technically credible long-term solution available to meet the need for safety without reliance on active management. It also offers security benefits because it would place fissile materials out of reach of all but the most sophisticated weapons builders. As in all scientific work, progress in achieving geological disposal has been marked by surprises, new insights, and the recognition that for even the best-characterized sites, there always will be uncertainties about the long-term performance of the repository system. Providing convincing evidence that any repository assures long-term safety is a continuing technical challenge. Nevertheless, a well-designed repository represents, after closure, a passive system containing a succession of robust safety barriers. Our present civilization designs, builds, and lives with technological facilities of much greater complexity and higher hazard potential. Today the biggest challenges to waste disposition are societal. Difficulties in achieving public support have been seriously underestimated in the past, and opportunities to increase public involvement and to gain public trust have been missed. Most countries have made major changes in their approach to waste disposition to address the recognized societal challenges. Such changes include initiating decision processes that maintain choice and that are open, transparent, and collaborative with independent scientists, critics, and members of the public. Whether, when, and how to move toward geological disposal are societal decisions for each country. This decision process will be lengthy, and the time can be used to improve both the technical and the societal bases for these decisions. A stepwise process is appropriate for decision making under technical and social uncertainty. Some—but not all—of today's uncertainties in predicting the future behavior of a repository system can be reduced or eliminated by further research and development. Both fundamental knowledge and ways to deal with uncertainty are advancing, and they will continue to do so during the course of a repository development program. A stepwise decision process can utilize this evolving knowledge to make sound decisions on repository siting (including the geological setting), design, and operation.
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Page 4 Successful decision making is open, transparent, and broadly participatory. National waste disposition programs in democratic countries cannot hope to succeed today without a decision-making process that facilitates choices among competing social goals and ethical considerations. Sufficient time must be devoted to developing this process, including the involvement of broader circles of citizens in examining the choices in an informed way. The challenges of such complex decision making can best be met by flexible and adaptive management. A management system that is flexible, responsive to surprises, capable of midcourse corrections, and effective in its interaction with concerned segments of the public has the greatest possibility of success. International cooperation can help achieve national solutions. Cooperation especially can help less advantaged nations, for example, those with more limited financial means, small nuclear programs, or unfavorable geology. Cooperation can range from shared research programs to shared storage or disposal facilities offered by a host country to other nations. Sharing technology and facilities will reduce the cost burden for all the cooperating nations and will facilitate the establishment of internationally accepted standards. Progress in adopting a solution in one country serves as a positive example to other countries. PRINCIPAL RECOMMENDATIONS The recommendations from the study are discussed in Chapter 3. The following brief discussion presents the principal recommendations. 1. National organizations with responsibility for the management of HLW, together with the scientific and engineering communities (including social scientists), should provide the leadership and support for solving the problems posed by HLW. Because the current situation in many countries does not present an urgent safety hazard and because the issue of radioactive waste management is extremely sensitive politically, there is a temptation to postpone or avoid decisions and actions. Nevertheless, the safety problem is immediate in some countries and will grow elsewhere as more waste is generated and new storage facilities become necessary. Moreover, security concerns will grow as more fissile material arises from dismantling nuclear weapons unless a disposition route for this material is prepared. Accordingly, actions are needed to generate options, understand their implications, and involve the public in the choice of approaches to safe and secure disposition. 2. National HLW programs should expand their efforts beyond technical project development and implement processes that involve the public in decisions to assure safety and security. A decision is by definition a choice between at least two alternatives. In a democracy, the
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Page 5 acceptability of controversial decisions at the societal level depends largely on the use of criteria that have been established and understood in advance and on the use of procedures that are seen as fair. Program managers and national leadership should assure that the criteria and procedures used in decisions concerning HLW meet these tests. Choice must always be available. We recommend that radioactive waste management programs develop both the option for adequate storage, to assure that this capability is available for as long as it is needed, and the geological disposal option. 3. For both scientific and societal reasons, national programs should proceed in a phased or stepwise manner, supported by dialogue and analysis. Each national program should perform a study of realistic alternatives, including a description of the current safety and security afforded by the status quo storage configuration over long time periods, perhaps decades to centuries. This description will provide a baseline for evaluation of alternatives, as well as steps toward geological disposal. Decision makers, particularly those in national programs, should recognize the public's reluctance to accept irreversible actions and emphasize monitoring and retrievability. Demonstrated reversibility of actions in general, and retrievability of wastes in particular, are highly desirable because of public reluctance to accept irreversible actions. 4. National programs should increase international cooperation by sharing information, coordinating policies, supporting international organizations, developing a consensus on international standards, and seeking other ways to assure that all countries achieve safe disposition of their radioactive waste. Global cooperation on HLW can bring benefits to all. International cooperation at the technical level is already intensive; coordination at the strategic and political levels should intensify. Some countries may agree to share waste treatment, storage, or disposal facilities. Laws, regulations, or ethical assertions that would prevent the transfer of HLW between willing and competent partner countries could preclude sound options to enhance safety, security, and economics. 5. National programs should take an integrated, comprehensive, and risk-based systems view to assure safety and security for storage facilities and repositories, both in the implementation of the waste management program and in its regulatory oversight. Cross-disciplinary experience and comprehensive analysis of the possibilities for HLW containment failure should be used to assure the safety and security of the HLW management system at all times, including during handling, interim storage, and transportation, as well as for long-term storage and geological disposal. Whether to proceed with implementation of geological disposal will depend in large measure on regulatory decisions. A phased approach to regulation of a geological repository, as expounded
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Page 6 10 years ago in the BRWM's report Rethinking High-Level Radioactive Waste Disposal (NRC, 1990), remains sound advice. Safety and security assessment experts must communicate their belief that their calculated results, although imperfect, provide sufficiently reliable input for decision makers. As long as one can be accurate in assuring that the levels of radioactivity release are low, precise estimates are not needed. Even with some orders of magnitude of residual uncertainty, the calculated release may be clearly within defined safety goals or limits. All parties involved in the decision-making process should have a consistent and accurate perception of what model-based analysis can and cannot do, so that they do not make erroneous decisions based on incorrect or biased expectations.