Brussels, 05 Feb 2003
EU Commissioner for Research, Philippe Busquin, said that the Sixth Framework programme (FP6) and the European Research Area (ERA) are essential tools in helping national research programmes to better coordinate sustainable nuclear waste management, as he visited the European underground research infrastructure for disposal of nuclear waste in clay environment (EURIDICE) in Mol, Belgium on 4 February, along with Commissioner for the Energy and Transport, Loyola De Palacio.
Nuclear energy is an important source of energy in Europe, accounting for 35 per cent of electricity needs. However, it causes waste: so far the EU has treated nearly two million cubic meters of radioactive waste. Most European countries are primarily concerned with managing high level radioactive nuclear waste, which is problematic as it accounts for only five per cent of nuclear waste in volume, but 95 per cent of radioactivity.
While spent nuclear fuel and radioactive waste are currently stored in facilities close to power plants, deep underground storage units are now being considered as an alternative for storing such highly radioactive waste.
According to Mr Busquin, 'all experts agree that the safest way to handle highly radioactive nuclear waste is in geological storage facilities [...] the option takes into account ethical and environmental issues for future generations.'
National programmes have been paying particular attention to long term safety as well as the potential of underground storage sites. Finland and Sweden are the first countries in Europe to have included in their legislation, plans to construct underground nuclear waste depots.
While France and Belgium are currently making use of research generated from underground laboratories, other countries such as UK and Germany are still renewing their initial geological strategy and are responding to public concerns over nuclear waste management, claimed Mr Busquin
Both Commissioners stressed the need for Member States to make progress to put in place effective management systems.
'Independent of the energy policy choices made by the Member States, consistent action by the EU in this field is necessary, all the more so with the forthcoming enlargement. The gaps in the Community legislation on nuclear safety must be filled,' said Ms de Palacio.
While the recent adoption by the Commission of two proposals for Directives for a Community approach to the safety of nuclear power plants and the processing of radioactive waste has provided Member States with a legislative framework and deadline, Ms De Palacio insisted that research should not be ignored.
'A lot a progress has been made towards identifying appropriate sites and developing the necessary disposal technology for underground waste management,' agreed Mr Busquin. 'But we need one more decisive research effort: Greater cooperation between Member States and with industry is necessary.'
As Mr Busquin pointed out, concerted efforts have been made by the European Commission in the last 25 years to support national nuclear research programmes and help coordinate measures undertaken by waste management companies as well as the research and industry sectors.
Mr Busquin highlighted the work achieved by the European Atomic Energy Community (EURATOM) for nuclear research and training activities, which continues to fund direct and indirect actions in this area under the Sixth Framework Programme: A total budget of 1,230 million euro has been allocated to EURATOM projects. In particular, 90 million euro has been earmarked to research geological and nuclear incineration.
While this sum is a welcome start, Ms De Palacio did stress the need for the EU to spend at least 30 times more on nuclear waste management research.
However, according to Mr Busquin, with the current funding available under FP6 and the establishment of the European Research Area (ERA), research capacities can be harnessed to provide high quality research in waste management throughout Europe: 'National excellence has to be converted by all participants and harmonised through the ERA.'
Mr Busquin concluded by saying that FP6 and ERA have already proven their worth with the establishment in November 2002 of Net.Excel, a network of major radioactive waste management organisations from seven Member States and Switzerland that work collaboratively on research and decision-making in radioactive waste management. 'This is a key step to developing a better system for the disposal of nuclear fuel.'
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