Still no country for old nuclear waste

Major challenges remain unaddressed says new report

By Dr. David Lowry

A very important, path-breaking report on radioactive waste was released in Berlin on November 11, 2019 at a press conference held at the headquarters of the Heinrich Böll Foundation, major sponsors of the research that informs the content of the study, titled World Nuclear Waste Report (WNWR).

It is the brain-child of former German Green Party/ Alliance 90 MEP, Rebecca Harms – a forty year campaigner against nuclear power –  and independent Paris-based international energy consultant, Mycle Schneider, the team behind the now internationally respected and encyclopedically comprehensive annual World Nuclear Industry Status Report.

The WNWR concludes “The final disposal of high-level radioactive waste presents governments worldwide with major challenges that have not yet been addressed, and entails incalculable technical, logistical, and financial risks.”


Creative expression of protest in Germany against the annual “Castor” nuclear waste transports to an interim storage facility. (Photo: Christian Fischer/Wikimedia Commons)

It spells out in nearly 150 pages of detailed analysis that over 60,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel (one type of highly dangerous and long-lived) alone are stored in interim storage facilities across Europe (excluding Russia and Slovakia, as the data published by these two countries is inadequate, according to the authors). It adds that within the European Union, France accounts for 25% of the current spent nuclear fuel generated, followed by Germany (15%) and the United Kingdom (14%).

According to the WNWR press release, “In addition, more than 2.5 million m³ of low- and intermediate-level waste has been generated in Europe (excluding Slovakia and Russia). Over its lifetime, the European nuclear reactor fleet will produce an estimated 6.6 million m³ of nuclear waste. Four countries are responsible for most of this waste: France (30%), the UK (20%), the Ukraine (18%) and Germany (8%).”

US NRC has failed to to protect public

While the stated focus of the report is Europe, a chapter on specific country studies includes the United States. There, the report reveals, the nuclear regulator chose not to take protective steps to safeguard nuclear waste at its operating reactors by moving irradiated fuel from fuel pools into dry casks and vaults.

“Such a move would reduce the likelihood and consequences of a spent fuel pool fire,” said the report. But instead, the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission “concluded that the projected benefits did not justify the estimated US$4 billion cost of a wholesale transfer.”

The WNWR report continued: “However, the NRC report was criticized for seriously underestimating the risk and consequences of a spent fuel fire: models of a potential accident at US nuclear fuel storage sites estimated very serious effects of hypothetical radionuclide releases. They contained maps illustrating the radioactive plumes across large areas of northeastern United States. The lead author, Professor Frank von Hippel, Princeton University, warned of drastic economic consequences: ‘We’re talking about trillion-dollar consequences.’ This risk affects not just the US but most countries that operate nuclear power plants, where increasing amounts of spent fuel are being left in cooling pools for increasingly long periods of time,” the WNWR authors wrote.

Costs of managing nuclear waste underestimated

WNWR stresses that “many governments underestimate the costs of interim and final storage. No country has a consistent financing model to date in place. This poses further financial risk for taxpayers.”

“Worldwide, the amount of nuclear waste is growing,” said Harms. “But even 70 years after the start of the nuclear age, no country in the world has found a real solution for the legacies of nuclear power.”

NWRIn addition to the safety aspects, the report identifies the enormous costs of interim storage and final disposal as another risk, said the WNWR press release.

“National governments and operators often significantly underestimate the costs of decommissioning, storage, and disposal of nuclear waste,” said Ben Wealer, another co-author of the study and industrial engineer at the Technical University of Berlin.

“In many countries there is a large gap between the expected costs and the financial resources earmarked for them,” the press release said. “The problem would be exacerbated by the fact that final disposal also involves incalculable risks, which could lead to enormous cost increases, as the German government experiences with the Asse repository illustrate.”

The press release also pointed out that “Nearly every government claims to apply the polluter-pays-principle, which makes operators liable for the costs of managing, storing, and disposing of nuclear waste. In reality, however, governments fail to apply the polluter-pays-principle consistently.

“‘No country in Europe has taken sufficient precautions to finance the costs of the final disposal of nuclear waste,’ Wealer warned. ‘There is a threat that the real, massive costs will ultimately be borne by the taxpayers.'”

Graph from Waste report

“Nuclear power has no future”

Ellen Ueberschär, President of the Heinrich Böll Stiftung, stated:

“The numerous unsolved problems in dealing with nuclear waste show that nuclear power has no future. At the same time, the report makes clear that phasing out nuclear power is not enough. Insufficient financial provisions for disposing of nuclear waste must not undermine the care and safety of decisions for interim storage and final disposal. The search for a suitable final repository needs greater public attention. The report is intended to facilitate a qualified international debate.”

This first edition of the WNWR will be translated into French and Czech. The initiators intend to publish a follow-up edition in the coming years in order to identify trends and developments.

For more information, see also: “No country in the world has found solution for nuclear waste challenge – report,” Clean Energy Wire, November 11, 2019.

Dr. David Lowry is a UK-based researcher and consultant with expertise on nuclear power and nuclear weapons. He can be reached by email at This article first appeared on his blog and is republished with kind permission of the author.

Headline photo: Symbolic anti-Castor nuclear waste transportation action in Wendland, Germany by Christian Fischer WikiMedia/Commons.

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