Radioactive waste an issue UAE will have to face

Originally published in The Telegraph

Countries with a nuclear programme, like the UAE, will benefit from international discussions on waste management.

ABU DHABI // Radioactive waste in the nuclear industry is a growing challenge facing countries, experts say.

A scientific forum focusing on meeting that challenge using science and technology for safe and sustainable solutions will run on Tuesday and Wednesday in Vienna.

“This is an important issue,” said Hamad Alkaabi, UAE ambassador to the IAEA. “There is a lot of international progress in radioactive waste management and disposal and the forum will provide a venue to discuss latest technological advances and trends. This is an important topic for any country with a nuclear programme, like the UAE, and we will benefit from the international experience and cooperation opportunities to support UAE planning in waste management.”

John Loy, director of radiation safety at the Federal Authority for Nuclear Regulation (Fanr), said operating a nuclear power plant produced low-level operational radioactive waste and spent fuel.

“Spent fuel is a much more challenging issue because it is very highly radioactive and it can’t be disposed of or handled very readily for quite a number of years,” he said. “You need to let it cool down heat-wise and radioactive-wise before it becomes able to be manipulated, conditioned or prepared for disposal so that time scale can be up to 50 years.”

He said the UAE would have to face the issue with what it does with its spent fuel eventually.

“The government has said in its nuclear policy and in the law that it will address that issue as early as sensible,” Mr Loy said. “There’s a framework in the law to create a new body for the disposal of radioactive waste to look after that issue.”

John Bernhard, the former Danish ambassador to the IAEA, said radioactive waste was a technical and political challenge in many states, mostly because it takes such a long time before there is no more danger emanating from it. “The challenge is inter alia to find places which are more or less uninhabited and which are suitable,” he said. “So, as safe as possible for thousands of years.”

He said the best solutions were normally found in countries with very hard and rocky underground where depots could be built deep into the rock.

“Some countries seem to be willing to receive waste from other countries against payment,” Mr Bernhard said. “But with the growing use of nuclear power, the problem is becoming bigger and the waste transportation is often problematic.”

Experts will highlight steps required to manage waste before its disposal, focusing on technologies to treat and convert it into a form suitable for storage, transport and disposal.

The forum will also touch on evolving nuclear technologies which could affect future waste management. “This is a very important issue,” said Lady Barbara Judge, the former head of the UK Atomic Energy Agency, said. “Because when you look at the benefits of nuclear energy and try to explain them to people, the question that always comes up is ‘what about the waste’?”

She said a potential solution would be to build deep geological storage facilities.

“But many are still on the drawing board and to be dealt,” she said. “This is an opportunity to share best practice among nations so that each country can learn what’s best for it and I believe it would be a good idea if countries could agree to regional storage facilities.”