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EN13 Nuclear Waste Production

This content has been archived on 12 Nov 2013, reason: Content not regularly updated
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Assessment made on  01 Apr 2007

Generic metadata


Energy Energy (Primary theme)

DPSIR: Driving force


Indicator codes
  • ENER 013
Geographic coverage:

Policy issue:  Is the use and production of energy having a decreasing impact on the environment?


Key assessment

Nuclear power is responsible for a steady accumulation of radioactive waste that poses a potential threat to the environment. The quantity of spent nuclear fuel produced provides a reliable representation of the accumulation of radioactive waste and its evolution over time.

Thirteen Member States produce electricity from nuclear power. In addition, the acceding countries Bulgaria and Romania also have nuclear power. Together these countries have 156 nuclear reactors in operation, with a further one under construction in Romania and another due to start production in 2009 in Finland. Construction of a new reactor in France is planned to start in 2007, and a number of countries also have proposals for new nuclear plants. Lithuania and France have the world's highest shares of nuclear electricity production within national electricity production (78.4 % and 78.3% respectively in 2004) and Slovakia (55.7 %), Belgium (55.4 %), and Sweden (51.1 %) also have a high contribution from nuclear power (see Energy Factsheet 27 on electricity production by fuel). Italy phased out commercial nuclear power in 1987.

Quantities of spent fuel produced in the EU have shown sharp fluctuations but on average, increased by 1.5% per year over the period 1999-20053, reaching a total of 3 300 tonnes of heavy metal (tHM). This growth was mainly due to an increase in the quantity of electricity produced by nuclear power plants due to increasing capacity and demand (nuclear electricity production increased at an annual average rate of 1.3% over the same period). The strongest fluctuations have occurred in the United Kingdom, where annual spent fuel arisings have varied between 650 and approximately 1 700 tHM per year. This was caused partly by variations in electricity production from UK nuclear plants, but the large peaks are linked to decommissioning of a number of older nuclear power plants. For example, decommissioning commenced at Berkley in 1989, at Trawsfynydd in 1993, at Hinkley Point in 2000 and at Bradwell in 2002. During normal operations only a fraction of a reactor core is refuelled each year and the spent fuel removed, but during decommissioning the reactor is fully de-fuelled.

Even stable annual quantities of waste imply that the accumulated quantity of waste will continue increasing. Work is ongoing to try to establish final-disposal methods that alleviate technical and public concerns over the potential threat that this waste poses to the environment. In the meantime, the waste accumulates in stores. The European Commission therefore suggested more support for research and development on nuclear waste management in its proposal for a sustainable development strategy (EC, 2001) and proposed a directive on the management of nuclear waste (EC, 2004c; EC, 2002e).

Long-term trends in the production of radioactive waste from nuclear power plants and thus the accumulated amount of radioactive waste depend on the future use of nuclear power. Decommissioning nuclear plants is becoming an increasingly important objective in some Member States due to public concern over environmental impacts while others are re-considering the nuclear power option in the context of climate change and energy security. There is also an on-going debate on the costs of production of electricity in nuclear power plants, which is still seen as an expensive option in the context of a liberalised market.

Projections of nuclear generation can therefore vary considerably depending on which of these concerns it is thought will dominate in decisions over future nuclear power plants. Table 1 shows two projections of nuclear electricity generation. The European Commission's PRIMES projections assume that nuclear power is phased out in line with Member State's current plans and no new plants are constructed, with EU production dropping to around 80% of current levels by 2030. The IEA's World Energy Outlook reference scenario is based on similar assumptions, but shows production falling further, to around 65% of current levels by 2030.

Public concern5 about environmental and safety considerations has led to plans to phase out nuclear power in certain Member States (such as Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden and Belgium), with some others either declaring or considering moratoria on the building of new nuclear plants. In Germany, a Parliament decision was taken in 2001 to phase out nuclear power. Following a referendum in 1980 in Sweden a parliament decision was taken in 1997 to close the two Barsebäck nuclear reactors. The closure of the second reactor was postponed since the decided conditions about new energy sources and safety of supply were not met on time. Nevertheless, the remaining operational reactor at Barsebäck nuclear power station closed in May 2005. In Slovakia, the government has expressed its unwillingness to issue state guarantees for the Mochovce 3 and 4 reactors, which has put their completion on hold and Poland has halted the construction of its nuclear reactor after the fall of the communist regime and it is not planning to complete it.

On the other hand, some Member States are currently discussing the construction of new nuclear capacity. In Finland and in France, the process of building additional capacity, based primarily on new nuclear designs such as the European Pressurised Water Reactor (EPR) and Westinghouse Advanced Passive technology, is ongoing. The Finnish reactor of Olkiluoto 3, is under construction and should start-up in 2010, and in France, construction of an EPR on the site of Flamanville should begin in 2007, with start-up planned in 2012. France also has plans to replace its current reactors as they reach the end of their life in the 2020s. In the accession country Romania, the Cernavoda 2 reactor is due to be completed in 2007. A number of countries including Belgium, Sweden, Germany and Spain are increasing capacity at existing plants, and plant life extensions are also being sought in some countries, for example the UK.

In terms of nuclear waste, additional capacity might increase the quantity of spent nuclear fuel. However, efficiency improvements within existing plants can reduce the demand for fuel and hence spent fuel (NEA, 2003), and furthermore, the new generation of reactors is likely to lead to lower levels of waste per unit of electricity production compared to existing plants. During the period to 2010, the amount of spent fuel produced is expected to decrease at an average rate of 1.7 % per year (OECD, 2003). This projected decrease is predominantly due to a projected decline in nuclear electricity production (see also EEA, 2005), combined with small improvements in the quantity of electricity produced per unit of nuclear fuel6. In the longer term, waste production (per unit of electricity produced) is expected to fall as a result of improved design of the next generation of nuclear reactors and fuel rods, allowing a larger fraction of the fissile material in the fuel to be used before the rods are replaced.

Large-scale reprocessing facilities for nuclear waste are currently in operation in France, Russia and the UK. A number of other Member States, including Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden and Switzerland currently reprocess a significant quantity of spent fuel in France and the UK.


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