Where is Europe’s Nuclear Waste?

90 meters higher than the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world – that would be the height if we were to stack all the nuclear waste created by Europe. With nuclear power being the second-largest source of clean energy after hydropower, there is bound to be more waste.


Europe is not alone. A Greenpeace report speculates 250,000 tons of high-level waste (HLW) harboured ‘temporarily’ in 14 countries. The U.S. sits on almost 90,000 tons of HLW meant for permanent disposal.

And though there are many practices for waste disposal, none has been deemed the safest or the best economically viable way for disposal.

A Greenpeace report speculates 250,000 tons of high-level waste (HLW) harboured ‘temporarily’ in 14 countries

Current Practices for Nuclear Waste Disposal

If we were to go by the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) standards then there should be emplacement without an intention to retrieve.

The industry tackles waste disposal based on the level of radioactivity, with deep geological disposal often advised for high-level waste (HLW), especially for spent fuel, plutonium and other such as they are considered more environmentally sound. Finland is the only country that has such deep burial sites ready. Germany is hunting down 90 potential sites for deep burial, for the necessity that would arise by 2050. The US too has successfully begun operation on their own deep geological waste repository, the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, specifically for its transuranic waste. Many countries though are still fighting to get political and public acceptance.

Intermediate-level waste (ILW) is disposed of using the shallow burial method with the help of constructed caverns or vaults built tens of meters up to hundreds of meters below ground. Decommissioning Europe’s reactors in the next two decades could generate 1.4 million m³ of low- and intermediate-level waste.

Low-level wastes (LLW) are largely incinerated. A large part of hospital radioactive waste falls under this category.

Other than these methods, ocean disposal of radioactive waste was carried until its ban in 1993. Other alternate ideas floating around are:-

  • Space Disposal: As you might have guessed, the expense too is out of this world.

  • Seabed Disposal: Embedding waste deep in the seabed seemed remote enough, but most international powers agreed the risk outweighed the benefits.

  • Long-term aboveground Storage Bunkers: Most nuclear companies have existing above-the-ground storage facilities, mainly temporary, meant for easy access to the waste for reuse. There are studies in motion to find favour in permanent above-ground storage.

Impact on Humans and the Environment

The Chernobyl and Fukushima disasters were wake-up calls for better storage of radioactive material, as their adverse effects are still felt in these regions.

The World Nuclear Association (WNA) points out that the radioactivity of nuclear waste will decay within a finite radiotoxic timeline. Depending on the waste, that could be 1,000-10,000 years. Naturally its hazard, too, would wane depending on its concentration. If we were to compare with other industrial wastes (such as cadmium and mercury) which could remain hazardous eternally.

Problems arise when

  • Governments do not follow the polluters-pay policy

  • There is reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel along with proliferation risks

  • There is a lack of waste categorization and malpractice in standard disposal methods

Within the EU, France houses 25 percent of the current spent nuclear fuel, followed by Germany (15 percent) and the United Kingdom with 14 percent

Europe had taken a lot of constructive steps to mitigate the chances of improper waste management. Yet there is 60,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel, HLW stored across Europe (excluding Russia and Slovakia), with a major chunk of it in France. Within the EU, France houses 25 percent of the current spent nuclear fuel, followed by Germany (15 percent) and the United Kingdom with 14 percent. Though France is currently testing safe sites to store over 80,000m³ of hazardous radioactive waste underground, it is far from ready as it sets to overcome its political hurdles.

Nuclear Energy is not the Villain

One study estimated that one KW per hour of nuclear-generated electricity had a carbon footprint of 4 grams of CO2 equivalent, which is at par with the carbon footprint of wind and minuscule compared to the 109 grams for coal. Without advanced nuclear energy, we would have spent far more on power generated from fossil fuels and would have had carbon emissions and air pollution at an unimaginable scale.

The WNA argues that though almost 25,000 shipments of HLW are transported across the world, there has been no instance of radioactive leaks since but strict protocols are followed.

The Way Forward

Nuclear waste disposal requires a tremendous push from policymakers. For such plans outlive company and an individual’s lifetimes. Hungary, for instance, didn’t have a policy set for a nuclear waste disposal plan within their country because their NPPs didn’t need a safe waste disposal plan to gain an environmental clearance.

What are the clear and defined routes to be taken to reduce the cost of managing nuclear waste?

We are covering all aspects at our “Nuclear Decommissioning and Waste Management 2021”, the best-in-class virtual business conference on effective waste management. Anni Jaarinen, Head of Decommissioning and Waste, Fortum, Finland is one of our noted speakers who will discuss with case examples on how to sustainably manage nuclear waste.