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Management of spent nuclear fuel and radioactive waste

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Management of spent nuclear fuel and radioactive waste

The Commission is proposing to help establish a high level of nuclear safety in the management of spent nuclear fuel and radioactive waste in the Member States, in order to protect public health and the environment. It believes that safe and effective management of spent nuclear fuel and radioactive waste can only be ensured through Community intervention.


Amended proposal for a Council Directive (Euratom) on the management of spent nuclear fuel and radioactive waste [COM(2004) 526 final - Not published in the Official Journal].


There are currently no final disposal facilities in any of the Member States for high-level and long-lived radioactive waste generated in the use of nuclear energy. Not one final disposal site has been set up in the more than fifty years of existence of the nuclear industry and at present radioactive waste is held provisionally in interim storage facilities.

Radioactive waste consists of non-reusable and non-recyclable substances which, when discharged or disposed of, contain sufficient radionuclides (radioactive elements) to potentially impact on human health and the environment. In total, about 40 000 m³ of radioactive waste is produced each year in the European Union, of which about 80% is short-lived low-level radioactive waste. The volume of waste produced will increase following the accession of the candidate countries.

Disposal in stable geological repositories (granite, salt, clay) is considered to be the safest and most sustainable solution for the management of high-level and long-lived radioactive waste. However, years of research in underground laboratories will be needed in order to design and implement these repositories.

Radioactive waste has various origins but is mostly produced by the nuclear electricity industry. There are four main sources of radioactive waste:

  • the use of nuclear energy to produce electricity, including nuclear fuel-cycle activities;
  • the operation of research reactors;
  • the use of radiation and radioactive materials in medicine, agriculture, industry and research;
  • the processing of material containing naturally occurring radioactivity.

The proposal for a Directive

Existing EU legislation does not provide for specific rules to ensure that spent nuclear fuel and radioactive waste is safely managed in an effective and consistent manner throughout the EU.

In view of this, the amended proposal for a Directive (FR) applies to all stages of spent nuclear fuel management and obliges Member States to:

  • take all necessary measures to ensure that spent nuclear fuel and radioactive waste are managed in such a way that individuals, society and the environment are protected against radiological hazards;
  • ensure that production of radioactive waste is kept to the lowest possible level;
  • take all the necessary legislative, regulatory and administrative measures and other steps required to ensure the safe management of spent nuclear fuel and radioactive waste;
  • establish or designate a regulatory body entrusted with the implementation of the legislative and regulatory framework;
  • guarantee adequate financial resources to support the management of spent nuclear fuel while respecting the 'polluter pays' principle;
  • ensure effective public information and facilitate public participation in order to achieve a high level of transparency.

The proposal requires Member States to adopt national programmes for the disposal of radioactive waste in general and deep disposal of high-level radioactive waste in particular. If the proposed form of disposal is not yet possible, the Member State's programme must include a timetable of dates for licensing the development and operation of disposal sites.

There is a very broad international consensus amongst technical experts that geological disposal is the most suitable method for long-term management of the most hazardous forms of solid and solidified radioactive waste. The Commission has issued a timetable to Member States for dealing with the issue of deep disposal for all forms of radioactive waste:

  • identify sites for deep disposal by 2008;
  • authorise the operation of surface storage sites for short-lived low-level radioactive waste by 2013;
  • authorise the operation of geological repositories by 2018.

The programme may include shipments of radioactive waste or spent fuel to another Member State or third country.

Every three years each Member State must submit a report to the Commission on the status of management of spent nuclear fuel and radioactive waste under its jurisdiction and progress made towards application of the future Directive. These reports are to be evaluated by a committee of experts appointed by each Member State.

The reports must describe all research and technological development, including information regarding costs, sources of financing and expected duration and dates of completion.

Lastly, the Commission must integrate all this information into a status report on the management of spent nuclear fuel and radioactive waste in the EU that will be published every three years.


The Green Paper on the future security of energy supply in the European Union (EU) highlights the need to maintain research and technological development (RTD) which will ensure the required isolation of the waste over very long time-scales. The Sixth Framework Programme for research - allocated EUR 750 million for nuclear fusion and around EUR 150 million divided between waste processing, radiation protection and safety - is focusing on the search for geological repositories and for a technique which would reduce the length of time for which highly radioactive nuclear waste is dangerous.

References and procedures


Official Journal


COM(2004) 526


Consultation CNS/2003/0022


Communication from the Commission to the Council and the European Parliament of 19 May 2004 - Decommissioning of nuclear installations and waste management - Nuclear liabilities arising out of the activities of the Joint Research Centre (JRC) carried out under the Euratom Treaty [SEC(2004) 621 final - Not published in the Official Journal].

Last updated: 22.11.2007