How is the problem of high-level radioactive waste disposal solved in the world?

Currently, the problem of high-level radioactive waste disposal is becoming more and more severe. According to the research of the organizations dealing with the issues of nuclear fuel cycle (NFC) ending, geologic storing sites (GSS) are a safety option of the long-term high-level waste (HLW) isolation from the environment and human beings. The IAEA started the implementation of the International Project on Demonstrating the Safety of RAW Geological Disposal (GEOSAF) in 2008. A peculiar forum for the exchange of experience and opinions in demonstrations of the safety of high-level radioactive waste geological disposal was established within the framework of the project. This project also was aimed to provide an international platform for knowledge transfer in view of the increasing number of countries contemplating nuclear power. The inaugural meeting took place in Paris in June 2008 and was hosted by the French Institute for Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety. Two working groups were created within the framework of the project. The first group is dealing primarily with demonstration methodology for radioactive waste (RAW) geological disposal safety, and the second is focusing on the regulatory process. Several tasks for the working groups have been identified, including a review of a report on a European pilot study on regulations and standards for demonstrating the safety of geological disposal and carrying out a critical review of test cases.

The proven technologies for RAW interim storage (up to 50 years) are considered by specialists as half-measures which do not satisfy the principles of sustainable development and put a burden of final nuclear waste utilization on the future generations.

As far back as in 1957 the U.S. National Academy of Sciences considered the concept of a deep disposal in geologic formations as a prospective way of HLW localization. The scientists proved that RAW disposal in repositories with natural geological barriers complemented by engineering protective systems is feasible, although expensive and technically complicated project.

There are five main conditions to implement the project of HLW disposal site:

  1. Appropriate geologic and climatic conditions of a country (this issue is examined below foreshortened by the research of Pangea Group(*)).
  2. Well-defined national strategy in the area of nuclear waste management and the required legislation pertaining to NFC ending.
  3. Public acceptance. In many countries just a public opposition compelled the authorities to delay the implementation of HLW GSS project (for example, in Belgium, Argentina, Spain, France, Italy, etc.).
  4. Capability of a country to finance a scale project of HLW GSS construction.
  5. Relatively large nuclear power branch of a country and a sufficient volume of its own HLW.

These conditions ensure the reduction of unit costs needed for HLW disposal and justify a considerable investment in GSS. The fourth and the fifth criteria create opportunities for international cooperation under the joint GSS projects.

Review of national strategies and programmes on HLW management

Environmental conditions of a country meeting the requirements of geoecological safety are the objective prerequisite for HLW GSS construction. In 2001 the Pangea Group specialists in cooperation with national research organizations studied different regions of the world on their geologic and climatic compliance with the requirements for a deep underground HLW storage facility. The potential to find a large stable and dry region is determined by the following criteria: aridity index [**], tectonic stability taking into account the world-wide seismic zoning map, and volcanism failure (11).

The research of the Pangea Company represents the prospective (ideal) regions for HLW GSS placing. These are the South areas of the South America (Argentina), South of Africa (RSA, Botswana, Namibia), Arabian Peninsula, South of Russia and Kazakhstan, China, Mongolia, Australia. The international practice testifies that the appropriate environmental conditions are desirable, but not sufficient factor to reach success in the deep underground HLW disposal project. In the regions having less favourable environmental conditions the GSS facilities are being constructed under the tightened seismic resistance normative standards. For example, the construction of radioactive material storage facilities in Japan is eight times as expensive as in France, and thirteen times as expensive as in Great Britain (4). One important point to remember is that this research was focused on large regions and did not consider a possibility of smaller areas which also possess the potential for GSS construction.

The problem of nuclear waste initiates a wide political and public resonance in all countries having the ongoing nuclear programmes. Many pro and contra arguments have been gradually culminated into the HLW management strategies. Some of the countries legislatively proclaimed the method of a deep HLW disposal in geologic formations as the basic direction of development. These counties are the USA, Sweden, Finland, Japan, Russia, China, Belgium, India, Switzerland, etc.

The separate position is taken up by France. In 1990 the Law of this state stipulated, in addition to a geological disposal, another two options for HLW management, namely, interim storage and transmutation (***). The reasons of such decision are originated from the oil energy crises and unprecedented peak prices for uranium in the 1970s. Ever since, with a view to protect political and economic sovereignty of France, the fundamental guiding line of the country is targeted at the development of nuclear power engineering and recycling technologies (****). In the same Law of 1990 it was envisaged that in 2006 the Parliament of the country had to review the course of national strategy on HLW management in the context of new R&D. Other states, despite the less formality, also adhere to a diversified policy on nuclear waste management. Such countries as Czech Republic, Hungary, Spain and Japan study the possibility to implement such technologies as sorting, transmutation and HLW geological disposal.

Great Britain and Canada consider all theoretically feasible approaches for HLW management. The option of the deep disposal in geologic formations did not get public support there and its implementation was delayed. At the beginning of 2004 the Advisory Council submitted for consideration to the UK Cabinet of Ministers 14 options for HLW management. However, hitherto the national strategy in this area is not specified.

Within the countries, in which the national strategy for HLW management is based on the waste disposal in geologic formations, the following projects are being implemented (ranking of the countries is presented under the starting dates of storage facility operation; the financial estimations of the projects are set, unless information regarding it is nor secret):
– 2010, USA. The Law on GSS necessity was passed by the Congress in 1982. In 2002 the President George H.W. Bush signed the Resolution for GSS construction at Yucca Mountain Site. The storage facility is designed for disposal of over than 70 000 tons of HLW. The project cost by 2010 will have amounted to 57 520 million U.S. dollars (48 239 million euros). It includes the disposal of all SNF which will be gotten from the functioning and closing NPPs (~ 83 500 tons), as well as HLW from defense activity. The estimation comprises the cost for a disposal site, transportation and accompanying programmes. The Yucca Mountain GSS is designed for ten thousand years. The GSS scheme is presented in Fig. 1.

Fig. 1: Scheme of Yucca Mountain GSS , USA.


– 2015. Sweden.The present-day strategy on NFC ending was developed in the late 1970s. The current capacities of Svensk Kärnbränslehantering AB (SKB), Swedish company for SNF and RAW management, include a centralized SNF interim storage facility – CLAB, filling of which is expected by 2015. Theretofore SKB plans to start a SNF disposal site operation. Currently, the possibilities of two sites for GSS, Forsmark and Simpevarp, are being analyzed.

The final decision on the site selection was made in 2007.

The SKB concept of SNF ultimate disposal (KBS-3) comprises the SNF capsulation into copper jerrycan type containers and its placing into bentonite clay inside vertical holes (15). The holes are made in a crystal bedrock foundation and connected by a tunnel system located at a depth of 500 m (Fig. 2).

Fig. 2: KBS-3 Method is the Principal SKB Concept on SNF Disposal


The storage facility’s design capacity is 9000 tons of SNF. The GSS cost is estimated at 28 billion Swedish kronas (3 million euros). The whole national programme on HLW management will amount to 6 466 billion euros, and includes the costs for a SNF disposal site and funds for NPP decommissioning.

– 2020. Finland. The researches on GSS were started in 1983. In 2001 the Parliament of Finland supported a candidature of Olkiluoto Site (Yuraoki) for GSS construction with a capacity up to 4000 tons of SNF. The storage facility’s construction is estimated at 222 million euros. The cost of the whole programme on HLW management of the country will amount to 1287 million euros, and will include the cost for SNF interim storage, transportation, a disposal site and accompanying programmes (e.g., licensing). Finland is already experienced in the construction of an underground storage facility, namely, a unique storage facility for intermediate-level and low-level waste disposal was built at Loviisa NPP.

– 2030. Germany . Pursuant to the Nuclear Power Act of 1959, Germany adheres to the concept of HLW geological disposal. Two sites, Gorbelen and Konrad, were considered till 1998. The coalition government, being in power since 1998, decreed to turn over a new leaf since 2001 in searching only a single site for GSS of all HLW types. By the end of 2004 it was planned to specify the procedure for a site selection, and after that up to 2020 to select the appropriate site. The cost for GSS projects as of 1996 was estimated as follows: Gorbelen – 2290 million euros; Konrad – 1370 million euros. As a result of the site review, these figures are not in force by now.

2035. Japan . Pursuant to a national strategy of Japan, the vitrified HLW must be placed in GSS at a depth of more than 300 m. Currently, an open invitation for the regions concerned to launch proposals on GSS placement within their territories was announced. The whole national programme on HLW management will amount to 22 250 million euros, and includes the cost for R&D, a disposal site with a capacity of 40 thousand jerry cans filled with the vitrified HLW, management and taxes.

– 2020 – 2040. Russia . The nuclear fuel cycle closing is a strategic direction of the nuclear power development in Russia. The implementation of this direction has to ensure the minimization of RAW formation with the following disposal. Within the framework of the Russian project on HLW geological disposal, the options of Zheleznogorsk and Krasnokamensk are being considered as a potential site.

– 2020 – 2040. Spain . Determination of a site for GSS was started in 1986, and within its framework the prospective regions were specified. The activities were stopped since 1997, because of the public resistance. The final decision on the site was delayed until 2010. The whole national programme on HLW management will amount to 10 billion euros, and includes the cost for SNF, high-level, intermediate-level and low-level waste management programmes, as well as the cost for NPP decommissioning.

– 2020 – 2040. Slovakia . The activities on finding the appropriate site were started in 1997. Currently, six potential sites are being analyzed.

– 2040. China . In 1985 the four-stage programme for the construction of HLW GSS was initiated. The second stage is being in progress now (1996-2010), within the framework of which it is necessary to determine a site for GSS. Despite the stage is not over yet, Bayshan is already called a potential site.

– After 2040. The Netherlands . The process for the site selection has not been specified. The possibilities of an international geological storage site are being considered.

– 2047. Hungary . The researches on GSS were started in 1993. The possibility to take part in the international HLW GSS is being considered. Under the estimating calculations, the national programme on HLW management will amount to 1 292 million euros, including the cost for R&D, interim storage, HLW transportation, design, licensing, construction, operation and GSS closure.

– 2050. Switzerland . The three-phase strategy for GSS construction has been implemented since the early 1980s. The storage facility is designed for 660 jerry cans of high-level RAW and 1200 jerry cans of SNF. The storage cost will amount to 1,9 billion Swiss francs (1,39 million U.S. dollars). The cost for the whole national programme on HLW management, including transportation, SNF interim storage and disposal, as well as the disposal of intermediate-level and low-level waste is estimated at 7238 million euros.

– 2065. Czech Republic. Eight potential sites were selected in 1998. The final decision on the site selection is planned to be taken by 2025. Under calculations, the GSS project cost will amount to 1 472 million euros, including the cost for R&D, SNF disposal site, and accompanying programmes (e.g., on public relations).

An interesting situation has been formed in the European Union (EU) countries under the conditions of the multilevel administration system. In 2002, in spite of existence in some of the member states of their own strategies in the area of NFC ending, the European Commission developed “Nuclear Package” of directives in the tideway of All-European harmonization policy (9). The directives are aimed at propagation of unified nuclear standards and control mechanisms on the expanded EU territory. Thereafter all the EU member states have to develop the national strategies on management of all RAW categories, particularly putting an emphasis on GSS. “The Nuclear Package” lays down the requirement to determine a site for GSS by 2008, and start the storage facility operation by 2018. Some experts assess the set parameters as unrealistic, as far as the HLW GSS project, as a practical matter, requires the longer terms of realization.

Because of absence of the real estimating parameters on closed and open NFC options, nowadays, more and more countries are inclined to “deferred decision” of issues relating to SNF management. This way was chosen by Australia, Argentina, Belgium, Great Britain, Canada, Slovenia, France. Such “wait-and-see period” may be delayed until the first results of the American disposal project (in 2010).

In a number of states ( Mexico, Pakistan, Romania) the issues related to NFC ending have not yet received a mature development up to the level of the national strategy on HLW management. In other group of states, the HLW geological disposal was declared as a principal direction of development. However, there are no specified terms of GSS construction for the time being: e.g., in Italy, South Korea, India.

The concept of HLW underground disposal in geologic formations has got the further development in the countries possessing all five criteria needed for the GSS project implementation. The analysis revealed that HLW disposal site projects are characterized by a strict stage-by-stage approach that reached by a well-defined national strategy of the country in the area of HLW management. In a number of states the decision concerning the GSS is postponed. This tendency may be overcome through international cooperation in the field of GSS construction.

HLW disposal optimization on a global basis: concept of international disposal site

The postulate that a country getting benefits from using nuclear technology has to bear a full responsibility and burden on NFC ending is a generally recognized ethical principle for nuclear waste management. This, however, does not mean that the countries are obliged to find a solution to a problem of their nuclear waste on their own territory.

As it was said above, the design of deep underground storage facilities for HLW requires the corresponding geologic conditions and immense resources to ensure which is beyond the power of small countries. The states that have a restricted and/or heavily populated area, small scopes of nuclear programmes and, consequently, waste, as well as possess unstable geology aspects can run into difficulties in implementing HLW GSS project. Collection of these factors resulted in the development of a concept of international (or regional) HLW geologic storing sites during the 1950s-1970s of the XX century.

Let’s do a retrospective review. The earliest researches in the area of international HLW GSS related to the 1970s of the 20th century. These researches were carried out from a perspective of the most general approaches by different organizations, namely, by Regional Nuclear Fuel Cycle Centers (1975-1977); Nuclear Energy Agency of Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (1987); Synrock Research Group in Australia (in the middle of 1980s), etc. The IAEA expert groups started to study concepts of the international storage facilities in the 1990s (works of 1994-1995, 2001-2002). Additionally, a number of initiatives were developed at that time by Marshall Islands (1995-1997), Wake and Palmyra Islands (the middle of the 1990s), Australia, Pangea Group (1997-2002).

The latest specific initiatives in the area of international HLW storage facilities are the follows: 

    • Non-Proliferation Trust, since 1998
    • Initiative of Ljubljana (Slovenia), since 2001
    • Proposal of Russia, since 2001
    • Proposal of Kazakhstan, 2001 and 2002
    • ARIUS – Association for Regional and International Underground Storage, since 2001
    • SAPIERR Project – ‘Support Action: Pilot Initiative for European Regional Repository’, since 2003.

The necessity in researching the potential for creation of the regional European storage facility led to a proposal from ARIUS and DECOM organizations named ‘Support Action: Pilot Initiative for European Regional Repository’. The objective of the Support Action is to make first steps towards determination of the main feasibility factors of the European regional repository project (17).

The construction of international disposal site can have some advantages as compared with national geological storage facilities, namely, less number of HLW repositories on a global scale; the possibility of joint technical expert examinations; the possibility to select a site with the most favourable geologic characteristics; less number of facilities used for waste conditioning and non-standard facilities. The international HLW GSS, optimally located and equipped by the most advanced technologies, can become a powerful source to consolidate the efforts pertaining to NFC ending and ensure the global environmental safety (9).

The major part of costs for a deep disposal site are made up of the fixed expenses not depended on a scope of buried nuclear waste, and including the expenses for research, obtaining access to underground structures, infrastructure development, as well as conduction of licensing processes and issue of authorizations. The expenses for construction the very HLW disposal site are comparatively not so heavy. The state, receiving wastes for disposal from abroad, acquires direct economic benefits for its services. The countries, paying for the waste disposal abroad, are also have economic benefits, as far as a scale of the disposal will enable to reduce unit costs needed for waste management. At the same time, geologic characteristics of the disposal site can provide conditions under which the creation of expensive additional engineering barriers are not required.

Moreover, the factors of nuclear non-proliferation and global safety count in favour of international GSS. The protection from unauthorized use of radioactive sources is becoming an object of increasing regard on the part of world public. There are concerns that some countries do not possess the due technical standards and control system for spent nuclear materials, that increases the possibility to produce ‘a dirty bomb’. In case of political instability in the country which has nuclear waste, the neighbouring states are interested in the waste relocation under the more effective protection. In the time of a contemporary risk of terrorism, the international centers of HLW deep underground disposal can potentially ensure the safe nuclear waste isolation (17). The protection of nuclear materials will be carried out more transparently in an international disposal site under the conditions of openness for the international control of IAEA and other states.

The international disposal site’s operation has to result in increasing nuclear waste transportation. The present-day work experience reveals that the risk from the radioactive materials’ transportation is very low, and does not play a determining role in the disposal strategy; similarly, the expenses for transportation of a limited number of HLW in a nuclear fuel cycle are not considered as a constraining factor.

On any scenario of the world nuclear power development, the capacity of the world service market on HLW management will be growing up. Taking into account HLW features, the commercial life of their management service market will amount to a hundred years. The concept of the international HLW storage facility faced more difficulties than it had been expected at the beginning of this method’s development. Considerable economic, ecological and geopolitical advantages of the international GSS in the long term will assist in reaching a consensus among the states who are potential supplier and recipients of HLW for the disposal in geologic formations.

How is indeed this problem settled in our country?

In 2004, in the Engineering Research Centre for RadioHydroGeoecologic Ground Research (NITs RPI), jointly with the specialists of the Ministry of Ukraine of Emergencies and Institute of Environmental Geochemistry under the Ukrainian National Academy of Sciences (NAS), the conception of the state purpose-oriented programme for creation in Ukraine a geologic storing site for isolation of high-level and long-lived radioactive waste was developed. The Conception was approved during the session of the Presidium of the Ukrainian NAS in July 2005.

About 76000 tons of the most dangerous RAW have been amassed in Ukraine, and it will be accumulated more in the short term. These RAW include high concentrations of radionuclides with a long half life (isotopes of uranium, neptunium, plutonium, and etc.). Pursuant to the national regulatory documents and international recommendations, such wastes must be obligatory isolated from biosphere in the specially made deep seated storage facilities.
Ukraine is taking the leading positions among other countries in a number of high-level and long-lived RAW per 1 GW capacity of the operating Nuclear Power Plants (NPP).


Ukraine does not have its own programme for isolation of the above-mentioned RAW. This fact hinders from sustainable development of nuclear power engineering, transformation of the Shelter Object into an ecologically safe system, completion of liquidation of the Chornobyl catastrophe consequences. Furthermore, delay in the problem solving means the transfer of an economic burden for the future generations. The solution to the problem is development, approval and implementation of the Programme for creation of a geologic storing site.

The main directions of the activities envisaged by the Conception of the Programme for creation of a geologic storing site (GSS) are the following:

  1. site selection (2006-2010);
  2. the site exploration (2011-2015);
  3. confirmation of the site serviceability – carrying out of research in an Underground Research Laboratory (URL) (2016-2026);
  4. design of a geologic storing site (2006-2028)
  5. construction and commissioning (2029 – 2035).

The activities on assessment of availability to use in Ukraine a borehole geologic storing site in order to isolate high-level and long-lived radioactive waste in the interior of the earth have been performed in the NITs RPI since 2000. The activities are financed by the Science&Technology Center in Ukraine. Ukraine is at the early stages of programme implementation to create the geologic storing site (GSS). Therefore, it has an opportunity to use the international best practices in selecting optimal type of GSS structure (mine or borehole). Here, the acting regulatory and technical requirements of the country, nuclear power trends, as well as economic conditions must be taken into consideration to the fullest extent.


To solve completely the problem of high-level and long-lived RAW isolation in Ukraine, it is suggested to divide them into groups. In the first place, it is suggested to create a borehole geologic storing site for vitrified HLW, spent nuclear fuel and Shelter Object fuel containing materials (FCM), and hereafter to construct a mine repository for HLW and LLW of the Ukrainian NPPs, as well as for a part of the HLW and LLW located at the Shelter Object and storage facilities within the Exclusion Zone.

The most appropriate area to arrange a deep RAW storage facility in Ukraine is the ChNPP 10-km Exclusion Zone.

On this territory the state is already creating a unique industrial complex on sorting, incineration, compaction, storage and near-surface RAW disposal. It is called ‘Vektor’ Processing and Disposal Center (TsPZ ‘Vektor’).

In view of natural environmental conditions, a geologic solid mass of rapakivi granites under the ChNPP, and in particular, westward of the Plant, is a quite appropriate for the creation of an adequate deep storage facility and disposal site for the HLW and long-lived RAW in the interior of the earth under the TsPZ ‘Vektor’ Site .

The fulfillment of Article 17 of the Law of Ukraine ‘On RAW Management’ and State Programme for RAW Management requires an obligatory HLW and long-lived RAW disposal in stable geologic formations to which the deep seated solid mass of granitoids of the ChNPP Exclusion Zone belongs to the full extent.

International cooperation in terms of financing and expert examination of the project for the future deep storage facility has to ensure a successful completion of creating such essential and composite construction.


List of References:

  1. О стратегии развития атомной энергетики России до 2030 года и на период до 2050 года
  2. Основные санитарные правила обеспечения радиационной безопасности (ОСПОРБ-99)
  3. Где захоронять РАО: на Земле или на Солнце? // dated 14.04.2004.
  4. Морозов В.Н., Родкин М.В., Татаринов В.Н. К проблеме геодинамической безопасности объектов ядерно-топливного цикла.
  5. Уломов В. И. Общее сейсмическое районирование территории России и сопредельных стран.
  6. Экология. Наука. Техника. Сайт научно-просветительского центра
  7. McCombie, C., Chapman, N., Kurzeme, M., Stoll, R. International Repositories – an Essential Complement to National Facilities // Pangea Resources International. LBNL Workshop on Geological Solutions in Waste Disposal.
  9. Joint Convention on the Safety of Used Fuel Management and on the Safety of Radioactive Waste Management.
  10. Programme for Research, Development and Demonstration of Methods for the Management and Disposal of Nuclear Wastes // Technical Report TR-01-30 SKB.
  11. Regional and International Solutions for Long-Lived Radioactive Waste Disposal: the ARIUS initiative // Proceedings of the 10th International IHLRWM conference in Las Vegas, Nevada.
  12. Technical, institutional and Economic Factors Important for Developing a Multinational Radioactive Waste Repository. IAEA-TECDOC-1021. Vienna.
  13. (website of U.S. Department of Energy).
  14. (website of Association for Regional and International Underground Storage).
  15. Радиоактивные отходы: зоны риска и варианты решения проблемы. Как избежать экологической катастрофы вУкраине.2008.
  1. Radioactive waste and its classification
  2. Нужны ли России чужие ядерные отходы, 2009


(*) Pangea Company is concentrated at development and implementation of technologies to solve the most complicated tasks of geological modeling, that are the tasks on complex analysis of all available information. 
(**) Aridity is droughtiness that leads to moisture stress of living organisms, first of all of vegetation.
(***) Transmutation (from Latin. trans — through, over, across; Latin. mutatio — modification, change) is the conversion of one element into another.
(****) RECYCLING – reallocation of resources.
Recycling— International symbol of reprocessing. Processing (other terms: reprocessing, waste recycling, reutilization or waste recirculation).
(*****) R&D – Research and Development.

Previous Article
Next Article