Chapter 57: Radioactive Waste Management – Selected Countries and Approach to Disposal

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


The International Panel on Fissile Materials (IPFM) is in the process of finalizing an analysis of the policy and technical challenges faced internationally over the past five decades by efforts at long-term storage and disposal of spent fuel from nuclear power reactors.  These challenges have so far prevented the licensing of a geological spent fuel repository anywhere in the world.  The IPFM was founded in January 2006.  It is an independent group of arms-control and nonproliferation experts from seventeen countries, including both nuclear weapon and non-nuclear weapon states.Slide1Here is a summary of the findings of this report on the history and current status of radioactive waste management in ten countries.  The case studies include five countries that are planning on direct disposal of spent fuel (Canada, Finland, Germany, Sweden, and the United States), four countries that reprocess nuclear spent fuel (France, Japan, Russia, and the United Kingdom), and one country (South Korea) whose disposal plans are a subject of discussions with the United States as part of the renewal of a bilateral nuclear cooperation agreement.Slide2Nuclear power reactors are fueled mostly with low-enriched and natural uranium, which undergoes a fission chain reaction releasing heat and creating radioactive fission products and plutonium and other transuranic elements. The heat is used to produce steam to drive turbines that produce electricity. Eventually, the concentration of chain-reacting isotopes drops to the point where the fuel is considered “spent” and has to be replaced with fresh fuel.Slide3The intensely hot and highly radioactive spent nuclear fuel from power reactors is unloaded into a water-filled pool immediately adjacent to the reactor to allow its heat and radiation level to decrease. It remains in this pool for periods ranging from a few years to decades.  After cooling, the fuel may be transferred to massive air-cooled dry casks for storage on site or in a centralized facility.  This approach is known to be as “Direct Disposal of Spent Fuel”.Slide4In a few countries, spent fuel is sent to a reprocessing plant, where the fuel is dissolved and the plutonium and uranium recovered for potential use in reactor fuel. These processes also produce high-level wastes that contain the fission products and other radioisotopes from the spent fuel – as well as other streams of radioactive waste, including plutonium waste from the manufacture of plutonium-containing fuel.  This approach is known to be as “Reprocess Nuclear Spent Fuel”.Slide5It is widely accepted that spent nuclear fuel and high-level reprocessing and plutonium wastes require well-designed storage for periods ranging from tens of thousands to a million years, to minimize releases of the contained radioactivity into the environment. Safeguards are also required to ensure that neither plutonium nor highly enriched uranium is diverted to weapon use. There is general agreement that placing spent nuclear fuel in repositories hundreds of meters below the surface would be safer than indefinite storage of spent fuel on the surface.

1.1        Spent Nuclear Fuel Inventories:

A typical modern reactor has a capacity of about 1 GWe (1,000 Megawatts electric).  According to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), there exist today 331 GWe of Light Water Reactors (LWRs), 23 GWe of Pressurized Heavy Water Reactors (PHWRs), also called CANDU for Canada Uranium Deuterium), and 19 GWe of Graphite-Moderated Reactors (RBMKs) .  Almost all the reactors now under construction are LWRs, and indeed most are PWRs.  The amount of spent fuel discharged from a nuclear power plant depends upon the fuel “burnup,” i.e., the thermal energy (heat) generated per unit mass of fuel.  Table (Figure: 57-05) shows the approximate amount of spent fuel that would be discharged per year from a 1 GWe reactor of the three most common reactor types.

As of the end of 2009, there were about 240,000 metric tons (as heavy metal) of spent fuel in storage worldwide, most of it at reactor sites.  About 90 percent was in storage ponds, the balance was in dry-cask storage.  The annual spent fuel generated is approximately 10,500 tons of heavy metal per year, with roughly 8500 tons of heavy metal going into long term storage and about 2000 tons of heavy metal allocated for reprocessing but much of it in interim storage.

The most systematic reporting on spent fuel inventories is done by the national reports required under the Joint Convention on the Safety of Spent Fuel Management and the Safety of Radioactive Waste Management. The third national reports were mostly done in 2008 and gave inventories of spent fuel at the end of 2007. The spent fuel inventories for the countries covered in this study, which account for over 80 percent of global nuclear capacity, are shown in Figure: 57-06, with totals for France and Japan reported from other sources.

Spent fuel inventories referred to in cooling ponds and dry-cask storage, as of the end of 2007, for the countries in the IPFM study come mostly from national reports under the Joint Convention on the Safety of Spent Fuel Management and the Safety of Radioactive Waste Management. The country chapters in the forthcoming IPFM report will have more detail, and some include estimates for years after 2007. The term “Heavy Metal” indicates that the fuel mass is being measured by its original uranium or uranium-plus-plutonium content, i.e. not including the weight of structural materials or the oxygen in the uranium and plutonium oxides.Slide6The U.S. has by far the largest holding of spent fuel. As of the end of 2010, the total U.S. stockpile of spent power-reactor fuel was 64,500 tons, including 15,350 tons in dry casks.

1.2       Summary of the Findings by each Country:

Here is a summary of the findings on the history and current status of radioactive waste management in a number of key countries, including those with the largest and oldest nuclear-power programs:

  • Canada:  Canada’s first attempts, in the 1970s and 1980s, at finding a location to dispose of nuclear waste were abandoned due to public opposition. This led to a recognition that the strategy for nuclear waste disposal had to be technically sound and socially accepted. In 2002, several Canadian utilities and Atomic Energy of Canada Limited (AECL) created the Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO) to recommend a path forward and oversee the selection of a suitable repository site. NWMO set out various criteria for site selection after extensive public consultation and, in 2010, began a multi-year process of finding a community willing to host a geological repository. Meanwhile, all spent fuel is stored at the reactor sites in pools and dry storage;
  • France:  France is reprocessing its spent uranium fuel and using the recovered plutonium in LWR MOX (Mixed- Oxide) fuel. The spent MOX fuel is being stored pending commercialization of fast breeder reactors. France has accumulated a large volume of high-level and intermediate-level, long-lived (i.e. plutonium) waste from its reprocessing and plutonium-recycle activities.  Planning for a common geological repository for these wastes 500 m deep in a clay formation at Bure in eastern France is being implemented by the National Radioactive Waste Management Agency (ANDRA). It is aiming for a start-up of repository operations by 2025;
  • Germany:  Until mid-2005, Germany sent most of its spent fuel to France and the U.K. for reprocessing, with the separated plutonium being fabricated into mixed oxide fuel (MOX) and returned to Germany to be loaded into LWRs.  High-level reprocessing waste is being returned to a centralized interim storage facility at Gorleben where it awaits final disposal in a repository together with spent nuclear fuel. In the 2000 nuclear-power phase-out agreement, it was decided that shipments to the reprocessing plants would end in mid-2005 and the spent-fuel would be stored on the reactor sites pending ultimate disposal. It was decided that exploration of the Gorleben salt dome for a repository also would be suspended while the framework of a criteria based site selection procedure was developed and implemented and generic safety-related issues that are independent of specific sites were clarified. A Committee on a Site Selection Procedure for Repository Sites (AkEnd) was established which recommended a consultative approach that would include a consideration of several possible repository sites. The AkEnd process collapsed in 2003, however, and no site selection process has been launched;
  • Japan:  Japan’s fuel cycle policy has been premised on the assumption that spent fuel will be reprocessed.  Initially, spent fuel was sent to France and the U.K. for reprocessing.  Then Japan built a domestic reprocessing plant at Rokkasho with a design capacity of 800 tons per year.  However, full operation of the plant has been delayed repeatedly and was currently scheduled for 2012.  The storage pool at Rokkasho is now full.  Almost all of Japan’s other spent fuel is stored in pools at the reactor sites with a small amount stored in casks on two sites.  Construction of an interim dry cask storage facility was launched in Mutsu near the Rokkasho reprocessing plant but has been put on hold following the Fukushima earthquake. Japan has decided on deep geological disposal for its high level wastes and has committed that no waste will stay for more than 50 years in Aomori Prefecture, which hosts the Rokkasho Reprocessing Plant. Solicitation of volunteer communities to host a national geological repository has, however, not yet produced any candidates;
  • South Korea:  At present, South Korea stores its spent fuel on-site at its four nuclear reactor sites.   One of these sites, the Wolsong nuclear power plant, has four CANDU heavy-water reactors whose spent-fuel pools are full. Dry storage facilities have been built to accommodate the older spent fuel to make space in the pools for newly discharged spent fuel. South Korea’s nuclear utility, Korea Hydro and Nuclear Power (KHNP), states, however, that at the LWR sites, such dry storage is not politically possible even though the storage pools at these sites too will all fill up in the next decade or two.  Attempts to establish off-site central spent fuel interim storage have failed due to local opposition. This situation has been used by the Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute (KAERI) as an argument for the need to reprocess (pyro-process) South Korea’s light-water reactor spent fuel – although such a plan could not be realized for decades.  After several failed attempts to site a repository for low and intermediate waste, the government succeeded by adopting a consultative approach and providing substantial financial incentives to local governments. A public consensus-building process on spent fuel management, including issues of interim storage and final disposal, was planned but then put on hold by the government;
  • Russia:  Russia currently reprocesses at the small RT-1 plant at Ozersk the spent fuel from its six first generation 400 MWe light-water reactors, two similar Ukrainian reactors, and Russia’s BN-600 HEU-fueled prototype fast-neutron reactor.  Almost 50 tons of recovered power-reactor plutonium and 34 tons of excess weapons plutonium are being stored for future use in Russia’s planned breeder reactors.  The spent fuel from Russia’s 1 GWe light water reactors, along with the spent fuel of similar reactors in Ukraine and Bulgaria, is sent for storage to Zheleznogorsk in Siberia near Krasnoyarsk, where a large storage pool was built in the 1980s for the never completed RT-2 reprocessing plant.  A second smaller pool has been built and a very large dry cask storage facility is planned at the same location.  At present, the spent fuel from the Russian graphite-moderated, water-cooled RBMK reactors is stored at the reactor sites but the older spent fuel is to be shipped to a planned dry-cask storage facility at Zheleznogorsk. Drafts of two laws, “Management of Radioactive Wastes,” and “On Spent Fuel Management,” to establish a repository site-selection process have been under consideration in the State Duma;
  • Sweden and Finland:  Sweden initially signed reprocessing contracts with France and the UK, but decided in the 1980s to follow the lead of the U.S. and forego reprocessing.  In Finland, spent nuclear fuel from two Soviet-designed reactors was initially exported to the Soviet Union for reprocessing with no waste or plutonium coming back but this was discontinued after the collapse of the Soviet Union.  Both Sweden and Finland decided that they will manage their spent fuel domestically by disposing of it in national repositories.  They have gone through extended site-selection processes for national geological repositories and both have selected sites adjacent to existing nuclear power plants.  Both countries plan to use copper casks embedded in bentonite clay, a design developed in Sweden starting the 1970s.  In 2001, Finland’s parliament took a decision in principle to store all its spent fuel in a repository next to the Olkiluoto nuclear power plant. In Sweden, the license application for a geological repository next to the Forsmark nuclear power plant was submitted in early 2011. Questions have been raised about the longevity of the copper casks and about the potential effects on the repository of the weight of an ice sheet such as that which covered most of Scandinavia during the Ice Age;
  • United Kingdom:  The UK has been reprocessing all the uranium-metal spent fuel from its first generation gas-cooled graphite-moderated MAGNOX reactors, the last of which were to be shut down by 2012.  It is also reprocessing a significant quantity of the uranium-oxide fuel discharged by its second-generation Advanced Gas-cooled Reactors. There are no final plans on how to manage the UK’s approximately 100 tons of separated plutonium although the preference of the current government appears to be to use it as MOX in a proposed new generation of LWRs.  In 2003, after two decades of little success in siting waste facilities, the government established a public Committee on Radioactive Waste Management (CORWM) to consider long-term strategy both for intermediate and high-level reprocessing waste. CORWM had as one of its charges “to inspire public confidence.”  Its final report in 2006 recommended a voluntary partnership approach to site selection backed up by robust interim storage, possibly for 100 years or longer.

The UK has not yet developed a site-selection process, however, and the degree of consensus that has been achieved could be threatened if the UK goes ahead with constructing new reactors; and

  • United States:  The United States has been attempting since 1970 without success to site a geological repository for spent fuel and high-level waste.  The 1982 Nuclear Waste Policy Act mandated that the Department of Energy select three candidate repository sites.  In 1987, Congress intervened and selected Yucca Mountain, Nevada.  The Department of Energy spent approximately $10 billion preparing the technical basis for a license application but, in 2010, in response to strong opposition from the Nevada state government and its Congressional delegation, the Obama Administration halted the project.  In the meantime, almost all spent fuel in the U.S. remains at the reactor sites, with dry cask storage for older spent fuel being deployed as the pools fill up.  In 1998, the U.S. Department of Energy did successfully put into operation the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in a salt formation in New Mexico for defense-related plutonium wastes.  In January 2010, as a first step toward establishing a new U.S. spent-fuel policy, the Obama Administration established the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future “to conduct a comprehensive review of policies for managing the back end of the nuclear fuel cycle and to provide recommendations for developing a safe, long-term solution to managing the Nation’s used nuclear fuel and nuclear waste.”  The Commission was to produce an interim report by July 2011 and a final report by January 2012.

1.3           Reprocessing and Radioactive Waste Policies:

Reprocessing spent fuel began as a way to obtain plutonium for nuclear weapons. In the 1960s, however, almost all countries with nuclear power programs were planning to reprocess their spent fuel in order to use the recovered plutonium in start-up fuel for breeder reactors. By the early 1980s, much more low-cost uranium had been discovered than initially projected, reprocessing was found to cost much more than originally expected, and breeder reactors were generally found to be much more expensive and less reliable than light water reactors. These developments, in combination with proliferation concerns relating to the large-scale commercial separation of plutonium, led the United States and many other countries to abandon reprocessing.  Some countries, including Argentina, Brazil, South Korea, Sweden and Taiwan ended their reprocessing programs when they abandoned their pursuit of nuclear weapons.

The nuclear establishments in France, the UK, Russia, Japan and India, however, persisted with reprocessing. In the absence of breeder reactors, France and Japan launched programs to recycle their separated plutonium in light water reactors in the form of “mixed oxide” fuel (MOX, a mixture of uranium and plutonium oxides). The UK has simply stored its separated plutonium and only now is beginning to consider disposal options. Russia and India are building prototype breeder reactors – although on a much-delayed schedule.

Advocates of reprocessing today argue that it can ease the technical and political problems of radioactive waste disposal by allowing most of the plutonium and other long-lived transuranic elements to be recycled. According to a comprehensive study by the U.S. National Research Council published in 1996, however, even with repeated recycle in fast-neutron reactors, it “would take about two centuries…to reduce the inventory of the [transuranics] to about 1% of the inventory of the reference LWR once-through fuel cycle”. The study also concluded that this would be extraordinarily costly.

Plutonium is recycled in a few countries today. This results in a net reduction of the plutonium in the spent fuel by about half. France, which has the most extensive reprocessing and MOX program, does not attempt to recover the plutonium from the spent MOX fuel. In effect, it has exchanged the problem of managing spent fuel for the problem of managing spent MOX fuel, high level waste from reprocessing, plutonium waste from plutonium recycle, and eventually the waste from decommissioning its reprocessing and plutonium fuel fabrication facilities.

Countries that reprocess produce wastes that require about the same size geological repository as would direct disposal of the un-reprocessed spent fuel. For example, ANDRA, France’s radioactive waste management agency, has estimated the repository tunnels for the radioactive waste generated by its reprocessing and plutonium recycle activities will underlie about 15 square kilometers of surface area– about the same area that would have been required had France not reprocessed at all. Thus, reprocessing does not reduce the political challenges to repository siting. This is illustrated by the impasses over repository siting in Japan and the United Kingdom. In contrast, Sweden and Finland, the countries that are most advanced in the repository siting process; do not reprocess their spent fuel.

1.4       Nuclear Waste Storage and Disposal and the Future of Nuclear Power:

All stakeholders, whatever their view of nuclear power, realize that spent fuel and any high level waste expected to be generated by existing nuclear programs must be disposed of eventually.  Proposals to build new nuclear power plants are seen by some as compounding the problem by requiring larger or more repositories and potentially increasing environmental and public health risk.

In the UK, the Committee on Radioactive Waste Management sought to draw a clear distinction between legacy waste and “new-build” waste in drawing up a proposed national disposal policy – but with renewed UK Government interest in building a new generation of nuclear power plants, the effort to develop a disposal policy may bog down. A similar argument has been made by Canada’s Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO), a body established by the Canadian utilities and the Atomic Energy of Canada Limited to oversee the repository selection process. In accepting the NWMO recommended approach, however, the Minister of Natural

Resources described it as a step “toward a safe, long-term plan for nuclear power in Canada for future generations.”

In Germany, a coalition government of the Social Democrats and the Green Party decided in 2000 to phase out nuclear energy, partly in response to the contentious problem of nuclear waste management.  A subsequent coalition government of Christian Democrats and Liberals in 2009 delayed the scheduled phase-out, but reversed this position in the wake of the March 2011 Fukushima reactor accidents in Japan.

1.5       Policy Lessons:

An analysis of the national histories of spent-fuel management, presented at length in the report, yields the following key lessons:

  • Reprocessing has not led to a simplification or expedition of radioactive waste disposal;
  • Voluntary and consultative processes for siting of geological repositories have been more successful than top-down decision making;
  • Safe long-term underground disposal will likely require robust waste packaging and backfill, appropriate geology, and possibly retrievability for up to several hundred years;
  • Most countries have adopted dry cask spent-fuel storage as an interim strategy since no repository has yet been licensed;
  • No country has accepted foreign spent power-reactor fuel for ultimate disposal, although Russia takes back for interim storage and reprocessing some of the nuclear fuel it has sold to other countries for use in Soviet/Russian-designed reactors;
  • No country appears ready to host a multinational spent fuel facility, which will face similar siting and licensing issues that confront national repository efforts and possibly more public opposition; and
  • In some countries, the politics of waste repository siting have become entangled with the larger issue of the future of nuclear power.


  1. International Panel on Fissile Materials;
  2. Managing Nuclear Spent Fuel – Policy Lessons from a 10-Country Study;
  3. International Conventions and Legal Agreements;
  4. Japanese Waste and MOX Shipments from Europe; and
  5. IAEA – Developing Multinational Radioactive Waste Repositories.

Chapter 58