Chapter 56: Radioactive Waste Management – Multinational Disposal Practices

This chapter was published on “Inuitech – Intuitech Technologies for Sustainability” on April 22, 2013.


From 1969-90 there were more than 160 shipments of used nuclear reactor fuel from Japan to Europe.  Reprocessing of the Japanese used fuel has been undertaken in UK and France under contract with Japanese utilities.  Recovered fissile materials are returned to Japan as reactor fuel, notably as mixed oxide (MOX) fuel.

The first shipment to Japan of immobilized high-level waste from reprocessing took place in 1995 and the 12th and last one from France was in 2007. The first one from UK was in 2010.Slide1Nuclear power provides about one third of Japan’s electricity, and with the enhanced efficiency brought about by reprocessing used fuel to recycle the uranium and plutonium, it represents a major part of Japan’s endeavours to achieve maximum self-sufficiency in energy.  Japan had planned to have one third of its 53 reactors using some mixed uranium-plutonium oxide (MOX) fuel by 2010.Slide2Reprocessing separates the waste, particularly the high-level waste containing nearly the entire radioactivity in spent fuel, from the uranium and plutonium which are recycled as fresh fuel.  Separated high-level wastes – about 3 percent of the used fuel – remain.Slide3A total of ten Japanese electric utilities had contracts with the French company Cogema (now Areva NC) to reprocess their used fuel.  These Reprocessing Service Agreements date from 1977-78.  Other contracts were with British Nuclear Fuels Limited (BNFL) in UK and are now held by the government’s Nuclear Decommissioning Authority.  About 40 percent of the used fuel involved was reprocessed by Cogema/Areva and the rest by BNFL.

From 1969-1990, some 2940 tonnes of used fuel in total was shipped (in over 160 shipments) by these utilities to France for reprocessing.  Shipments of about 4100 tonnes were to the UK, and by mid-2007 more than 2600 tonnes of oxide fuel had been reprocessed there, plus a small amount of Japanese Magnox used fuel.Slide4Reprocessing of Japanese used fuel in France finished in 2004 and all the high-level waste from reprocessing the used fuel in France has now been shipped back to Rokkasho in Japan for long-term (30-50 year) storage prior to ultimate disposal. Waste shipments from the UK should be completed by 2016.  Japan has a small (210 tonnes/yr) reprocessing plant already in operation at Tokai, associated with the Monju fast neutron reactor.  A much larger (800 t/yr) reprocessing plant has been built at Rokkasho which has been undergoing commissioning activities since March 2006.  A 130 t/yr MOX Fuel Fabrication Plant at Rokkasho is under construction and was due to enter operation in 2012.

Japan uses marine transportation to transfer its radioactive waste to different countries.  The 500 kg stainless steel canisters (Figure: 56-01) containing high-level waste are transported in specially-engineered, heavily shielded steel and resin containers called casks or flasks.  Each cask holds up to 28 canisters of vitrified waste and weighs about 130 tonnes. Those used for the high-level waste are very similar to those for transporting the spent fuel from Japan to Europe in the first place, and the MOX fuel on the return voyage.

The ships involved are 104-metre, 5100 tonne, specially designed double-hulled vessels used only for the transport of nuclear material.  The ships belonging to a British-based company Pacific Nuclear Transport Ltd (PNTL), have been approved for the transport of vitrified residues, and conform to all relevant international safety standards, notably one known as INF-3 (Irradiated Nuclear Fuel class 3) set by the International Maritime Organization. This allows them to carry highly radioactive materials such as high-level wastes, used nuclear fuel, MOX fuel, and plutonium.

They have completed more than 170 shipments and travelled over 8 million kilometres in the 30 years to 2007 without any incident involving a radioactive release. PNTL is now owned by International Nuclear Services Ltd (INS, 62.5 percent), Japanese utilities (25 percent) and Areva (12.5 percent). It is currently renewing its fleet. INS is 51 percent owned by Sellafield Ltd and 49 percent by the UK’s Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, and managed by Sellafield Ltd.

1.1        Introduction:         

Wastes have been transferred from one country to another in the past without any great problems.  Large quantities of such wastes are transferred with the full consent of such partners, if the final solution arrived at guarantees better protection of the environment.  For example, Germany imports toxic wastes from many countries for safe disposal in disused salt mines, i.e. Germany provides an environmentally sound disposal option not available to all nations.  Of course, there have also been examples of toxic waste transfers motivated only by the wish to reduce costs and taking little heed of environmental issues. This situation should be ruled out for both toxic and radioactive wastes by appropriate legal measures and strict controls.  However, this chapter will be restricted to examples of radioactive waste transfers.

There are several examples of international or bilateral agreements in waste management, in which commercial organizations in some countries accepted responsibility and custody of waste generated in other countries. This form of cooperation resulted from implementation of reprocessing contracts, which in the early years did not contain clauses on returning the waste to the country where the power was generated. Other examples are the return of enriched spent research reactor fuel to the USA — a practice which was discontinued in 1988 and has been resumed again to continue until 2006 at least — and the return to the Russian Federation of commercial spent fuel originating from the former Soviet Union. In the recent past, a wish or a need for multinational cooperation has been expressed by a number of countries, which are not in a favourable position to implement self-sufficiently national repository programmes for all types of waste arising in their countries and/or which seek to benefit from multinational cooperation for the implementation of a nuclear repository (E.g. Belgium, Bulgaria, Hungary, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Netherlands, Norway, Republic of Korea, Switzerland, Taiwan). In addition, the potential advantages of the concept were pointed out by various institutions, including the IAEA, European Community (EC), US National Academies and the World Nuclear Association (WNA).

Despite these examples of interest in the transfer of radioactive materials, the management of radioactive wastes still centres on national strategies, not only for collection, interim storage and treatment, but also for disposal. This tendency towards unilateral action reflects the fact that radioactive waste is a sensitive political issue, making cooperation among countries difficult. It is consistent with the accepted principle that a country that enjoys the benefit of nuclear energy, or the utilization of nuclear technology, should also take full responsibility for managing the generated radioactive waste. This principle, however, does not necessarily imply that each country should exclusively develop its own national repositories, regardless of the technical, economic, financial and institutional implications. What is required is for each country to fully accept its national responsibility and to manage waste safely to the best of its ability in the most feasible manner, including international collaboration.

1.2       The Concept of Multinational Repository:

The term “Repository” implies that all the material, including spent nuclear fuel that is emplaced in the disposal system is considered a waste and is treated accordingly.  In line with the standard IAEA definition, this means that there is no intent to retrieve the waste — although retrievability may remain technically feasible.  If spent nuclear fuel is treated as a resource material to be reprocessed at a later stage, it is stored separately.

The term “Multinational Repository Concept” assumes that waste originating from more than one country is being disposed in a common repository.  The country in which the repository is located (“Host Country”) accepts waste from one or more other countries (“Partner Countries”).  The latter have also been referred to as “Customer Country” or “Client Country” and these terms are assumed to have the same meaning as “Partner Country”.  Apart from the host and partner countries other countries (“Third Party Countries”) may also have an interest in the multinational repository system. For example, a third party country may be a transit country for the shipment of the waste from the partner country to the host country or a country having certain rights in terms of international agreements that stipulate prior consent rights for the transfer of spent nuclear fuel to the host country.

The term “Regional Repository Concept” is applied to multinational concepts in which the host country and the partner countries are located in the same region of the world.  The multinational repository concept, in contrast suggests that any country regardless of geographical location may participate in such a collaborative scheme.  The term “International Repository Concept” implies that the waste disposal is organized under the authority of a supra-national body such as the United Nations for instance.

The three categories of wastes that have been transferred, as summarized in Figure: 56-05 is reprocessing waste, research reactor fuels and specific other waste types whose transfer can be beneficial. When reprocessing of foreign fuels began in France, the UK and the Russian Federation, there was no thought of returning wastes. Each of these countries had a large nuclear programme requiring it to implement disposal facilities for national wastes.

It seemed obvious that repackaging radioactive wastes and transporting these back over large distances was a less good environmental solution than co-disposal with host country wastes.  Faced with the intensive public debate on nuclear issues, however, reprocessor countries like the UK and France introduced new contracting conditions requiring the customer nations to agree to return of all wastes.Slide5Slide6Slide7The resulting course of action would imply shipment not only of the relatively small quantities of vitrified high level wastes, but also of the larger volumes of cemented low and intermediate level wastes. This is obviously extremely inefficient so that the reprocessors then proposed an arrangement under which the LILW may be retained and a smaller quantity of additional HLW returned. Exercising a degree of common sense thus results in a better global environmental option.

The same argument — a better global solution — applies to the mechanisms to allow return of spent research reactor fuel to the supplying country, most often the USA or the Russian Federation. In this case the arguments are not based only on radiological safety, but also on security. Many research reactors are fuelled with highly enriched uranium that could be misused in nuclear devices. Primarily for the latter reason, the USA has agreed to repatriate all such fuel originally supplied by the USA.

The shipment of specific waste types — as part of a commercial arrangement or an exchange agreement — can also be environmentally beneficial. For example, when Sweden decided to dispose directly of spent fuel it was faced with the prospect of having to implement a more complex repository that would also handle vitrified wastes, since some part of Swedish fuel (57 tons) had already been contracted for reprocessing. At the same time, Germany needed a place to store its first MOX fuel and recognized that the Swedish CLAB facility was suitable. A sensible arrangement was made to exchange the Swedish reprocessing contract for the German MOX fuel elements and most of the 24 tons of MOX was shipped to CLAB on the Swedish transport ship Sigyn.

Another example of waste transfer concerns only LLW, but it illustrates the utility of specialized repositories. A shipment of LLW, including industrial residues — and radium needles used for chemotherapy, was shipped from Spain to Hanford in the USA.  Although only small quantities of radium were included, the long half-life of this material made the wastes unsuited for disposal in the Spanish surface facility at El Cabril.  The Hanford disposal facility, on the other hand, routinely accepts similar wastes from the USA.  Another case of a larger programme accepting minor quantities of waste from a small producer is illustrated by the on-going shipment of radioactive residues from Luxembourg to Belgium.

A final example in which transfer of radioactive material, or seeking a common disposal solution, is recognized as being beneficial, concerns the disposal of spent sealed radiation sources. These sources can often still be strongly radioactive and, in some cases, long lived, when they are no longer usable for their original industrial or medical application. Sources are extensively used in less developed countries where no suitable disposal (or even storage) facilities are available. One solution that is being implemented is to compel the supplying high-tech country to take back the spent sources. Another is for countries with this common problem to develop jointly a solution.

1.3        Scenarios for Developing Multinational Repositories:

The degree of self-sufficiency of the national repository programme in the potential hosting country would have a major impact on the intensity and nature of the multinational cooperation for developing and implementing a repository.  Self-sufficiency of the national programme in the hosting country implies that the necessary infrastructural framework, the technical capability and the financial resources for developing and implementing the repository type in question can be provided without essential assistance from abroad.  In contrast to this, full multinational cooperation is indispensable if the host country cannot by itself provide the necessary technical and financial framework.  Even if a hosting country could make available all necessary resources and capabilities at a national level, a cooperative model may also be chosen, if all parties prefer to share the risks and benefits resulting from multinational cooperation in developing and implementing a nuclear repository.  Here are some scenarios defined broadly that could describe a possible end situation in which multinational repositories operate.

1.3.1     Add-on Scenarios:

  • The host country offers to complement its national inventory of wastes for disposal by wastes imported from other countries.

This scenario is characterized by the availability of all necessary resources and capabilities in the hosting country. It is possible that, in this case, a national repository programme would first be developed and implemented and then at a later stage disposal services might be offered to potential partner countries.  It requires that the hosting country have the political will, the technical and financial resources and the natural conditions (geology) to develop a repository.  Its motivation can have various sources:

  • Straightforward business initiative;
  • A desire to share repository development costs;
  • Willingness to help neighbours (in the context of a regional repository scenario);
  • An interest in reducing global security risks;
  • A commitment to reduce the number of disposal sites worldwide; and
  • An opportunity to trade its offer to take radioactive waste from its partners for some other national goal to which all partner countries can contribute.

An example for the last type of motivation could be the offer of countries with highly developed nuclear capabilities to combine the delivery of equipment for nuclear power plants with fuel leasing agreements, as it was exercised by the former Soviet Union with east European countries. In practice, in this add-on scenario, the repository remains effectively a national repository, but with a part of the waste inventory coming from abroad. However, the national infrastructural framework would have to be amended to enable the acceptance of foreign radioactive waste. In particular, the specification of the interfaces between the waste management systems of the involved countries will be required.  It is also conceivable that partner countries delivering waste to a host might place specific requirements on the repository system. The Swiss nuclear law, for example, has such provisions. Nevertheless it is expected that emphasis will be on the technical and institutional infrastructure available in the hosting country;

1.3.2    Cooperation Scenarios:

  • 2A: Several industrialized countries with relatively small nuclear energy programmes decide to cooperate for the disposal of their radioactive waste in a host country satisfying all necessary technical requirements.

The “Cooperation Scenarios” provide the more complex challenge with regard to multinational repositories, since they involve full-scale multinational cooperation as an indispensable prerequisite. There are various scenarios that can be included in this category; some are outlined below, others might also be feasible.

In the case where multinational cooperation is, by necessity or choice, an indispensable element of repository development and implementation, the scenario types are referred to as Type II “Cooperation scenarios”. They are characterized by the participation of other (partner) countries in developing a repository programme jointly together with the potential hosting country or countries. In this case one or more other countries interested to dispose their waste in the potential hosting country or countries will be involved directly in an early stage of repository development and implementation. It is conceivable also that countries can initially come together to discuss the advantages and drawbacks of a shared repository — without, however, defining at the outset potential host or hosts. This is similar to the “compact” system under which different groupings of states in the USA sought a common LLW repository.  It is also the basis of the SAPIERR (Support Action on Pilot Investigations on European Regional Repositories) project which has been initiated aimed at coordination of European interests in regional repository concepts.  The contribution of the partner countries will logically depend on the capabilities and demands of the hosting country and on their own capabilities.  Potential contributions could include technical assistance (including regulatory assistance), advance funding or political support.

The prospective countries in such group would be attracted to the multinational concept because of the prospect of reducing the number of waste sites and saving resources by not developing individual repositories and by benefiting from economies of scale. Candidate countries for such a group are those with small but mature nuclear programmes and extensive national experience, e.g. Belgium, Italy, Netherlands, Switzerland, etc.

  • 2B: Countries with small quantities of radioactive wastes and in varying stages of development seek assistance from each other and cooperate to ensure that one of their numbers acquires all necessary technology and institutional structures.

This scenario could be exemplified by cooperation between the significant numbers of member states that operate only research reactors and/or one or very few nuclear power reactors.  These countries might all be faced with similar difficulties in implementing a self-sufficient national disposal concept for all types of radioactive waste and in particular for high level waste and spent nuclear fuel.  Thus, multinational cooperation seems to be a logical consequence.  The partners would cooperate to ensure that the finally chosen host or hosts will, by the time of implementation, satisfy all technical and institutional requirements. In addition this scenario could be typical for countries whose sole use of nuclear materials is in the industrial, research reactors and medical area. An example, which is assisted by the IAEA, is the development of borehole disposal of spent nuclear sources from several developing countries in a multinational facility.  While a repository solely dedicated to the disposal of non-fuel cycle waste could be constructed, it may be preferable to handle these materials as part of a larger programme. It is also conceivable that a country with no significant quantities of its own wastes, but with especially suitable conditions for disposal, could offer to host a multinational repository for commercial reasons.

  • 2C: Specializing of repositories for specific types of waste possibly combined with arrangements for international exchanges.

In a process of optimization, it could be judged as useful if certain countries were to specialize in the disposal of specific types of waste. They could accept wastes of this type from other countries either as part of a commercial arrangement or, conceivably, as part of an agreement involving exchange of waste types.  Examples could be the collection of spent sealed sources for disposal in only a few countries, the exchange of heat generating waste against non-heat generating transuranic waste (TRU) or of LILW against HLW.  Such exchanges would require agreement among parties on waste equivalence and on measures for waste characterization, quality assurance and quality control. Waste exchanges of this sort are foreseen in the return of reprocessing wastes to customer countries and in the past some such exchanges with full transfer of titles have been reported from various European countries.  However, they did not have any significant impact on the development and implementation of repositories as a joint multinational effort. Nevertheless, they illustrate the viability of multinational cooperation as a pre-stage for the development of multinational repositories.  They could also lead to the development and implementation of specialized repositories as a multinational cooperative effort.

1.3.3     International or Supranational Scenario:

  • “Full international or supranational scenarios” in which a higher level of control and supervision is implemented.

It has been suggested that global acceptance of a multinational repository might be enhanced if the operation were fully in the hands of an international body. The host country would, in this scenario, effectively cede control of the necessary siting area to the international body. This scenario seems unlikely in the foreseeable future because such transfer of sovereignty is likely to be of extreme political sensitivity. It may also be less appropriate because international agencies, such as the IAEA are more suited to an oversight role than to assuming hands-on operational responsibilities. In this latter case, the question would also arise as to which body could then assume the control and supervisory role over the operator.

1.4       Conclusions and Recommendations:

Here are a number of conclusions that are summarized below:

  • Multinational repositories can enhance global safety and security by making timely disposal options available to a wider range of countries. For some Member States, multinational repositories are a necessity, if safe and secure final disposal of long lived radioactive waste is to replace indefinite storage in surface facilities;
  • The global advantages of multinational repositories are clear and the benefits can be significant for all parties, if they are equitably shared. For individual countries, the balance of benefits and drawbacks resulting from participation as a host or as a partner must be weighed by the appropriate national decision making bodies; and
  • Implementation of multinational repositories will be a challenging task. However, there are a number of conceivable scenarios under which their development might take place.

In addition, the current publication shares the conclusions of the earlier IAEA publication [1] on this topic:

  • The multinational repository concept does not contradict ethical considerations;
  • The high ratio of fixed to variable costs for a repository ensures that considerable economies of scale will apply; and
  • Transport of nuclear material is so safe that the distances resulting from a multinational repository will not have a significant impact on public health.

Here are some recommendations:

  • The concept of multinational repositories should continue to receive support from all countries that have an interest in a shared disposal solution;
  • Discussion on the advantages, drawbacks and boundary conditions for multinational concepts can be initiated by interested countries without prior definition of potential host countries; and
  • Proponents of national and multinational repository concepts should acknowledge that both types may be implemented and should try to ensure that activities undertaken in either case do not negatively impact the other.


  1. Japanese Waste and MOX Shipments from Europe; and
  2. IAEA – Developing multinational radioactive waste repositories.

Chapter 57