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Chair's Column - IAEA Waste Safety Standards Committee (WASSC)

Image of IAEA meeting in progress

Chair’s Column – by the chairman of WASSC

31st Meeting of WASSC, Vienna, 27-30 June 2011

This was the first meeting of the new committee for the 3-year term 2011-2013.  WASSC sets the program of work and approves drafts of international safety standards for radioactive waste management and disposal.

48 countries are currently members of WASSC, and there are 6 organisations represented with observer status (OECD/NEA, EC, WNA, ENISS, ISSPA and ISO).  New Zealand was represented at the meeting for the first time.

It is planned to continue the practice of holding joint WASSC and RASSC meetings as often as possible, although in 2012 due to scheduling issues this will not happen. A joint WASSC/NUSSC meeting is planned for July 2012, at which safety issues common to radioactive waste and nuclear safety will be discussed by the two committees.

Important issues for this new term of WASSC were identified as:

  • post-Fukushima, lessons learned and review of safety standards to discover any gaps or areas needing to be strengthened;
  • the importance of the IAEA international safety standards being used in member countries;
  • the front-end of the nuclear fuel cycle is uranium mining, the regulation of which is very different from other NORM industries – need to update international guidance and to consider if tailings are regarded as waste or residues;
  • harmony between safety and security;
  • greater emphasis in waste safety guidance on addressing socio-political issues including stakeholder consultation; in essence, in order to build confidence in the safety case, it is important that there has been sufficient early and ongoing stakeholder involvement throughout the safety case development process.
Selection of the documents approved:
  • DPP (Document Preparation Profile) DS454 (PDF 573 kb)Predisposal Management of Waste from the Use of Radioactive Materials in Medicine, Industry, Research, Agriculture and Education” was approved for submission to CSS (Commission on Safety Standards), with suggestions to avoid language (such as “safety case”) that might be intimidating for small producers, to be clear about the graded approach for the safety case, and to involve the co-sponsors of the BSS in the drafting of the document.
  • The draft Safety Guide (SG) DS421 (PDF 391 kb)Protection of the Public against Exposure to Natural Sources of Radiation including NORM Residues from Industrial Processes” was discussed by both WASSC and RASSC.  It was decided to split this draft into two documents, one on public exposures due mainly to radon from NORM residues under RASSC leadership, and the other essentially a re-write of the old U-mining and milling SG WS-G-1.2. (PDF 305 kb), under WASSC leadership with a tentative working title “Management of NORM residues from Mining and Processing of Ores”.

The IAEA will call a consultant’s meeting to evaluate feedback and prepare a draft DPP for revision of WS‑G‑1.2, for presentation at the next WASSC meeting in December. Australia will participate in the feedback evaluation and preparation of the DPP and draft new SG.

Fukushima lessons

The consensus of WASSC was that it is too early to draw lessons from the Fukushima accident in the area of radioactive waste safety.  Obvious areas that will need close attention include siting and safety of spent-fuel storage facilities, and the imminent program especially throughout Europe of stress-testing of NPPs as well as waste-management facilities.  Such cliff-edge testing of waste management facilities, following the Fukushima accident, will need to be considered in future waste safety standards, to ensure consistency in applying a common methodology and appropriate safety margins.

It was agreed to convene a meeting of a WASSC working group towards the end of October, to begin developing an action plan for review of the waste safety standards, in light of Fukushima lessons learned, and also ways of strengthening use of the waste safety standards (eg. through greater use of IAEA harmonisation projects).  For instance, some of the mountainous piles of debris  shown in the Japanese presentation (PDF 2.16 mb) are lightly contaminated and disposal of this debris needs to be quickly and safely managed by application of appropriate international safety standards.

Feedback from WASSC members on the use of Safety Standards

Post-Fukushima, there is a strong emphasis on improving the use of IAEA safety standards throughout the world.  This was an issue that came before the IAEA Ministerial Conference on Nuclear Safety held in June.  The IAEA expectation is that the international community will consistently use the IAEA safety standards as the benchmark in nuclear safety.

Considering the impossibility of getting worldwide agreement on making safety standards legally binding, the aspiration is that the weight of 152 member states providing political commitment will give gravitas, making the use of the safety standards “morally binding” - a significant step to achieving this goal towards improved nuclear safety.

WASSC members were invited to contribute personal views on the use of the waste safety standards in their countries.

In the EC, management and disposal of radioactive waste will be subject to legislation (to be adopted in July) which is based on the IAEA international safety standards.  In other words, the safety standards will be legally binding in radioactive waste management and disposal throughout Europe. In the EC legislation, the concept of the “safety case” is fully retained and strengthened (called the “safety demonstration”).  There are also strict conditions based on safety considerations placed on waste to be exported for disposal outside of Europe.

In the UK, there is not great use or even awareness of the IAEA safety standards, outside of regulators.  And then, mainly in nuclear not waste standards.  This is not helped by different waste classifications in use in the UK, for instance the UK classification for LLW based on the Drigg safety case.  In the non-nuclear areas (eg. medical) and also at government level, there is not a big awareness of the importance of international standards, but Fukushima is starting to change that.

France regards the IAEA safety standards as being important to achieve consistency, harmonisation and international consensus to give legitimacy which is important in the waste area.  For example, international consensus is considered extremely useful by France in getting support for national standards and practices such as near-surface disposal.

Decommissioning standards have proved especially useful for France.  The standards on risk assessment and the general set of decommissioning standards are very useful for France in the area of dismantling old nuclear infrastructure.

In the US, the IAEA safety standards are used as a “point of reference” for national standards, with the exception of the transport standard TS-R-1 (PDF 1.1 mb) which is picked up directly in US legislation.  For instance, currently the LLW regulations are being reviewed with reference to relevant IAEA safety standards.  The second use in the US is in ensuring compatibility of national and international standards by conducting a “gap analysis”.  IAEA standards are used in reviewing US standards, and in the waste safety area it is found that US standards align well.

Belgium, Germany and Sweden are embarking on new programs of stress-testing of waste management facilities, and this will add motivation for applying international IAEA safety standards.

Switzerland is participating in an IRRS peer review, which will also motivate greater use of the IAEA safety standards.  IRRS is a peer review service of the IAEA conducted by a team of international experts with experience directly relevant to the areas of evaluation. The team concentrates on key areas of regulatory activity identified within IAEA safety standards to assess the effectiveness of the regulatory body.  The review is not an inspection to determine compliance with national legislation, but is more an objective comparison of national nuclear regulation with the IAEA international guidelines.

In Sweden, international safety standards are used for benchmarking.  Sweden is developing a disposal facility for spent nuclear fuel, and regards it as important to show that they are following world best practice.  Also like Switzerland, they are undertaking an IAEA IRRS peer review against the international standards.

Croatia has suggested the formation of a working group of “small waste countries” without NPPs to work together in solving “institutional waste issues”, such as long-term storage based on international standards.  Possible member countries include Cuba, Thailand, Egypt and Australia.

Canada is in the process of licensing a L&ILW disposal facility in the next year.  The international safety standards are used in drafting and enhancing national regulations.  The Canadian national framework for radioactive waste safety refers to international standards as a way of ensuring the national framework is in line with international best practice.

In Australia, the situation is very similar to the US, with international standards used as a benchmark of international best practice and as reference for the drafting of national standards.  The IAEA transport standard is likewise picked up in Australia’s regulations as RPS2 Code of Practice for the Safe Transport of Radioactive Material (2008).  Australia is also currently participating in an IAEA IRRS peer review of the national regulator, ARPANSA.  This peer review will consider regulatory technical and policy issues, with comparisons against the IAEA safety standards.

In conclusion, the 31st meeting of WASSC has set the course to confront the challenges of safely managing the world’s radioactive waste into the future, by continuing the program to review and update the international waste safety standards, and to foster legitimacy in waste management and disposal practices by promoting widespread use of the international safety standards.  The weather for the week in Vienna was warm and sunny, and there were many groups of school children visiting the IAEA at the  Vienna International Centre. Of note were the primary school kids all wearing wide-brimmed sun hats, pleasing to see the  sun-smart message taken seriously in Vienna this summer.

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