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Nuclear energy and waste production

Indicator Specificationexpired Created 12 Sep 2008 Published 14 Sep 2010 Last modified 04 Sep 2015, 07:00 PM
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This content has been archived on 12 Nov 2013, reason: Content not regularly updated
Indicator codes: ENER 013
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Assessment versions

Published (reviewed and quality assured)
  • No published assessments


Justification for indicator selection

The environmental impact of nuclear energy can be divided in three stages: upstream fuel production, electricity production and waste disposal. All three stages have different effects on the environment as indicated in the indicator assessment. The release of radioactivity to the environment can result in acute or chronic impacts that, in extreme cases, can cause loss of biota in the short term and genetic mutation in the longer term, both of which may result in unknown and potentially fatal effects. Increased levels of radioactivity can also be passed up through the food chain and affect human and animal food resources. In terms of CO2 eq over the life cycle, nuclear power is comparable with renewable energy sources according to an EEA study on LCA analysis of energy systems (2009)


Scientific references

Indicator definition

The indicator measures spent nuclear fuel arising from nuclear electricity production in the Member States that had nuclear powered electricity production capacity between 1990 and 2009 (data for Bulgaria missing). It provides an indication of the situation of radioactive waste accumulation and storage.

Original measurement units:
                Spent fuel: tonnes of heavy metal (tHM)
                Nuclear electricity generation: terawatt hours (TWh)

According to the World Energy Council nuclear waste falls into the following four broad categories:

  • Very low-level waste (VLLW) contains negligible amounts of radioactivity, which can, depending on the clearance level, be disposed of in a dedicated surface site or with domestic refuse.

  • Low-level waste (LLW) contains small amounts of radioactivity and negligible amounts of long-lived waste.

  • Intermediate-level waste (ILW) contains higher amounts of radioactivity and does require shielding in the form of lead, concrete or water. It is further categorised into short-lived and long-lived. The former is dealt with in a similar way to LLW and the latter to HLW.

  • High-level waste (HLW) is highly radioactive, contains long-lived radioactivity and generates a considerable amount of heat.

HLW accounts for 10% by volume of radioactive waste generated and contains about 99% of the total radioactivity. This includes fission products and spent fuel.


 Spent fuel: tonnes of heavy metal (tHM)
 Nuclear electricity generation: terawatt hours (TWh)

Policy context and targets

Context description

Decisions concerning the use of nuclear energy are up to Member States: the principle of subsidiary grants member states autonomy in deciding their energy mix.

Public concern about environmental and safety considerations has led to plans to phase out nuclear power in certain Member States (such as Germany, Spain, Sweden and Belgium), with some others either declaring or considering moratoria on the building of new nuclear plants. On 30th May 2011, the German government decided to stand by the previous government’s plans to close all reactors by 2022 (WNA 2011). Italy completely phased-out nuclear power following a referendum in 1987. In Sweden the Barseback nuclear power plant closed in 2005. Sweden is the only country to have a tax discriminating against nuclear power.

On the other hand, some Member States are currently discussing the construction of new nuclear capacity. In Finland (Olikiluoto-3) and France (Flamanville-3), the process of building additional capacity, based on new nuclear designs such as the European Pressurised Water Reactor (EPR), is ongoing. Both are planned to start-up in 2012. Furthermore, in Romania, the Cernavoda 2 reactor was completed in 2007. Meanwhile, several countries, like the Netherlands, Belgium and Hungary have decided to extend the life-time of existing NPPs. Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and Poland agreed in 2007 on the construction of a NPP (Visaginas) in Lithuania. The Advanced Boiling Water Reactor is expected to operate from 2020. Bulgaria also plans to build two new reactors (Belene 1 and 2) and there has been strong governmental support for nuclear. The most up to date information on NPPs can be found in the Power Reactor Information System (PRIS) of the IAEA (IAEA, 2009).

On June 25th 2009 the European Council adopted Directive for setting up a Community framework for nuclear safety (COM(2008) 790 final). The Directive is a major step for achieving a common legal framework and a strong safety culture in Europe.

Main policy documents

  • EURATOM Treaty (1957)

The Euratom Treaty helps to pool knowledge, infrastructure and funding of nuclear energy. It ensures the security of atomic energy supply within the framework of a centralised monitoring system.

  • Council Directive (Euratom) setting up a Community framework for nuclear safety; COM(2008) 790 final

Provides binding legal force to the main international nuclear safety standards (IAEA Safety Fundamentals and the Convention on Nuclear Safety). The Directive also reinforces the independence and resources of the national competent regulatory authorities.

  • Council Directive establishing a Community framework for the nuclear safety of nuclear installations (2009)

 National responsibility of Member States for the nuclear safety of nuclear installations is the fundamental principle on which nuclear safety regulation has been developed at the international level, as endorsed by the Convention on Nuclear Safety. That principle of national responsibility, as well as the principle of prime responsibility of the licence holder for the nuclear safety of a nuclear installation under the supervision of its national competent regulatory authority, should be enhanced and the role and independence of the competent regulatory authorities should be reinforced by this Directive.

  • IAEA Safety Standards, Fundamental Safety Principles, No. SF-1 (2006)

States the fundamental safety objective as being to protect people and the environment from harmful effects of ionizing radiation. Ten safety principles are stated and their intent and purpose are briefly explained. The safety objective and the ten safety principles provide the grounds for establishing requirements and measures for the protection of people and the environment against radiation risks, and for the safety of facilities and activities that give rise to radiation risks.

  • IAEA Convention on Nuclear Safety (1994)

Achieve and maintain a high level of nuclear safety worldwide through the enhancement of national measures and international co-operation including, where appropriate, safety-related technical co-operation; to establish and maintain effective defences in nuclear installations against potential radiological hazards in order to protect individuals, society and the environment from harmful effects of ionizing radiation from such installations; to prevent accidents with radiological consequences and to mitigate such consequences should they occur.

  • European Sustainable Nuclear Industrial Initiative (ESNII) (2010).

This will support three Generation IV reactors as part of a wider programme to promote low-carbon technologies. Of particular focus is the Astrid sodium-cooled fast reactor (France), the allegro gas-cooled fast reactor (central and eastern Europe) and the lead-cooled fast reactor (Belgium), and additional nuclear applications include hydrogen production, desalination plants and industrial heat.


No targets have been specified

Related policy documents

Key policy question

What are the trends concerning the accumulation of high level nuclear waste and the production of spent fuel?

Specific policy question

What are the main developments concerning the spent fuel reprocessing and storage of high level nuclear waste in Europe?

Specific policy question

What are the most recent developments concerning the nuclear reactor design and what are the likely consequences on the environment and human health?

Specific policy question

What is the cost structure of the nuclear power projects?


Methodology for indicator calculation

Average annual rate of growth calculated using: [(last year / base year) ^ (1 / number of years) - 1]*100

Methodology for gap filling

No methodology for gap filling has been specified. Probably this info has been added together with indicator calculation.

Methodology references

No methodology references available.

Data specifications

EEA data references

  • No datasets have been specified here.

External data references

Data sources in latest figures


Methodology uncertainty

For the production of electricity, data have traditionally been compiled by Eurostat through the annual Joint Questionnaires (although there is no separate questionnaire for nuclear energy), shared by Eurostat and the International Energy Agency, following a well-established and harmonised methodology. This year for the first time greater disaggregation is available in Eurostat and we have aggregated the product codes (107030, 31, 32, and 33) to calculate gross electricity generation from nuclear power (former product code 107003). The primary energy from nuclear is calculated based on the electricity generation from nuclear with a 33.3 % efficiency rate. Methodological information on the annual Joint Questionnaires and data compilation can be found on Eurostat's website in the section on metadata on energy statistics, also see information related to the Energy Statistics Regulation from the same link.

Data sets uncertainty

Data on spent fuel arisings have been compiled by the OECD using data from member Governments. This is a consistent ongoing process that is updated annually. However, no information is available for Bulgaria. During 2008 and 2009, no data was available for Lithuania, Romania, Slovenia and Sweden, which decreases the overall accuracy of the indicator. The use of spent fuel arisings as a proxy for overall radioactive waste is itself slightly uncertain because of the various inconsistencies in classification of radioactive waste between Member States, although it does provide a ‘reliable representation of the production of radioactive waste situation and its evolution over time’ (OECD, 1993).

Rationale uncertainty

No uncertainty has been specified

Further work

Short term work

Work specified here requires to be completed within 1 year from now.

Long term work

Work specified here will require more than 1 year (from now) to be completed.

General metadata

Responsibility and ownership

EEA Contact Info

Anca-Diana Barbu


European Environment Agency (EEA)


Indicator code
ENER 013
Version id: 1
Primary theme: Energy Energy


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DPSIR: Pressure
Typology: Descriptive indicator (Type A - What is happening to the environment and to humans?)
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