Nuclear energy and waste production

Indicator Assessment
Prod-ID: IND-119-en
Also known as: ENER 013
expired Created 20 Feb 2009 Published 05 Jul 2010 Last modified 19 Apr 2016, 04:57 PM
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This content has been archived on 12 Nov 2013, reason: Content not regularly updated
The amount of highly radioactive waste from nuclear power production continues to accumulate and a generally acceptable disposal route for this waste has yet to be identified. The related potential health and environmental risks, as well as issues surrounding nuclear proliferation, therefore continue to be a cause for concern. EU citizens are most in favour of renewable energy sources while nuclear energy is opposed by many. However, many consider nuclear energy will be an integral part of the future energy mix, partly because of climate change concerns. New technological developments will allow for safer reactor designs and higher efficiencies, and lower production of waste.
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Key messages

The amount of highly radioactive waste from nuclear power production continues to accumulate and a generally acceptable disposal route for this waste has yet to be identified. The related potential health and environmental risks, as well as issues surrounding nuclear proliferation, therefore continue to be a cause for concern. EU citizens are most in favour of renewable energy sources while nuclear energy is opposed by many. However, many consider nuclear energy will be an integral part of the future energy mix, partly because of climate change concerns. New technological developments will allow for safer reactor designs and higher efficiencies, and lower production of waste.

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

Historic series in spent fuel arising (tonnes heavy metals).

Note: No information has been included for Bulgaria due to a lack of information.

Data source:

(OECD, 2007), (IAEA, 2003b), (NEA, 2007)

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Nuclear reactors and spent fuel commercial storage facilities in operation, 2008

Note: N/A

Data source:

WNA website (2008)

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EU Electricity production from nuclear (percentages relative to 1990 level)

Note: Data for Bulgaria is not included due to a lack of information.

Data source:

Eurostat, (OECD, 2007), (IAEA, 2003b), (NEA, 2007)

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Efficiency improvements in nuclear power plants in Europe (% of continuous full-power operation of the unit)

Note: N/A

Data source:


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Numbers of Nuclear Fuel Cycle Facilities operational in 2008

Note: N/A

Data source:

WNA, 2008

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Stored total amount of high level waste (in tonnes heavy metals)

Note: No information has been included for Bulgaria due to a lack of information.

Data source:

(IAEA, 2003b), (NEA, 2007)

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Indicative specifications for different reactor types

Note: N/A

Data source:

IEE, 2005

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Cost aspects of nuclear power

Note: N/A

Data source:

ECN, 2007

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Cost estimates on final disposal (million euros)

Note: N/A

Data source:

Kukkola, 2005

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This indicator focuses on the production of nuclear waste, its reprocessing and storage, as well as the closely linked issues of costs and the safety/risks of nuclear energy.

Waste production

Historical series of arising spent fuel are given in Fig. 1. Presented information refers to the quantity of heavy metals in nuclear fuel, which make up approximately 85% of the uranium fuel and 60% - 70% of the aggregation of fuel and fuel casing (fuel assembly).

The number of facilities for intermediate storage of spent fuel are given in Fig. 2, together with the number of reactors per country. There is presently no commercial storage facility for permanent storage of HLW. According to IAEA storage is defined as the holding of spent fuel or radioactive waste in a facility that provides for its containment, with the intention of retrieval. Storage is by definition an interim measure.

As indicated in the graph there is no storage facility in the Netherlands because of the export of spent fuel to Areva's reprocessing plants in La Hague.

Arising amounts of spent fuel depend primarily on the amount of power produced, but also to a large extent on the type of reactor, level of fuel enrichment, fuel burnup and power plant net electric efficiency. For example, as indicated by the given burnup rate (see Table), a Candu reactor will produce more spent fuel per kWhe than light water reactors. Arising amounts of spent fuel show a limited decline (approximately 5%) for the period 1990 - 2006, while produced power increased in this period with approximately 20% (see EN27). Since very few new nuclear power plants have come online since 1990 and several plants in UK, Lithuania, Germany, Sweden and Bulgaria have been shut down (WNA website, 2008) these trends illustrate increased plant availability in the past decades and increases in net plant electric efficiency of approximately 10% (from app. 32 - 35 app. %), (WNA, 2003). They also illustrate the trend in increasing fuel enrichment and fuel burnup and the resulting reduction in spent fuel arising per unit of power. This trend is likely to continue in the future.

Plant closure results in a peak in spent fuel arising as after closure all fuel present in the reactor core is removed. By contrast, during power production around 1/4 to 1/3 is removed annually as consumed fuel. The effects of plant closure on spent fuel production are most pronounced for the UK with decommissioning at Berkley (1989), Trawsfynydd (1993), Hinkley Point (2000) and Bradwell (2002) resulting in the peaks in the graph.

Future development of annually arising spent fuel quantities depend primarily on:

  • Political developments and related developments of nuclear power production capacity (new capacity constructed or existing capacity decommissioned - see also paragraph 'Policy');
  • Available capacity for nuclear power plant (NPP) construction - new NPP's are planned or under construction in Finland, France, UK, Bulgaria, Baltic States;
  • The rate at which current nuclear power capacity will be replaced;
  • National policies concerning reprocessing in other countries than France and UK.

Waste reprocessing

The amount of spent fuel arising in Europe is not equivalent to the amount of high level waste to be stored, since part of this spent fuel is reprocessed. Former Eastern bloc member states appear to have exported part of their produced spent fuel to Russia, with Bulgaria appearing to have exported spent fuel as late as 2006 (Bellona, 2008).

Reprocessing has an important position within the European nuclear fuel industry, as illustrated by the share of European reprocessing facilities to the global total number of facilities in Fig. 5. Europe imports most of the uranium consumed by its nuclear power plants as ore, having very little mining production in the region itself. Imported ore is processed into fuel in Europe and part of the produced fuel is exported to the USA. While in other parts of the world the fuel is stored after consumption, in Europe a significant portion of the spent fuel is reprocessed.

During reprocessing, uranium and the plutonium generated in the reactor are separated from (other) fission products and the fuel rod casing for re-use. Uranium is re-enriched (RepU: Reprocessed uranium is the uranium recovered from nuclear reprocessing) and reused as nuclear fuel, whilst plutonium is mixed with depleted uranium or tails to create MOX (mixed oxides, nuclear fuel containing both U and Pu oxides). Mixed oxide (MOX) fuel provides about 2% of the new nuclear fuel used today (WNA) and it is manufactured from plutonium recovered from used reactor fuel. Fission products and fuel rod casings are melted into borosilicate glass and are destined for temporary storage and final disposal. MOX can be utilized in some nuclear reactors at limited percentages, but not at all nuclear power plants.

In practice, part of the isolated plutonium and the majority of separated uranium are stored temporarily (EdF, 2007). Reprocessing separated uranium is less attractive than using fresh uranium because of the presence of neutron absorbing and gamma radiation emitting uranium isotopes (see e.g. Harvard, 2003 and MIT, 2003).

Spent fuel is reprocessed at La Hague in France and the Sellafield B 205 Magnox fuel reprocessing plant and THORP reprocessing facility in the UK. Total reprocessing capacity in France and the UK amounts to 4,100 tonnes heavy metals per year, and will reduce to 2,600 tonnes due to the closure of Sellafield B 205. The Sellafield B 205 reprocessing facility will close in 2012/2013 after closure of the last Magnox power plants in the UK (NDA, 2008).

At La Hague, French, Japanese, Dutch, Belgium and German spent fuel have been processed, although transportation of German spent fuel to La Hague ceased in 2005. As of 1st January 2007, 22,650 metric tons of used fuel have been treated at La Hague (Areva, 2007). Most RePu (reprocessed plutonium) is not reused but temporarily stored on site or exported to Russia. An estimated total of 20000 tonnes of RePu is stored in France, produced by the different La Hague and the older Marcoule plants. Another 10000 tonnes has also purportedly been exported to Russia for long-term storage (Burnie, 2007)

Waste storage

Stored amounts of spent fuel and reprocessing wastes are given in Fig. 6. Storage capacity has not been included because it is relatively easy to create extra intermediate storage capacity over a short term (e.g. spent fuel rack rearranging, canister storage).

Spent nuclear fuel is the most highly radioactive waste. It decays rapidly at first, i.e. after 40 years the level of radioactivity has typically dropped to 1/1000th of the initial value. But it takes around 1000 years to drop to the level of the original uranium ore which was needed to produce that quantity of spent fuel (WNA, 2003). The potential impact of nuclear waste on humans and the environment depends on the level of radioactivity and on the conditions under which the waste is managed. The majority of member states currently store spent fuel and other high level radioactive wastes in above ground storage facilities. However, deep geological disposal in an underground repository is currently favoured as a long-term option by many countries. Lower level radioactive wastes are commonly stored in surface disposal sites.

New technology (e.g. 3rd/4th generation)

Technological development in the last decade has resulted in improved versions of existing LWR reactor designs, such as the EPR, AP-1000, ESBWR and ABWR: the so-called generation III or III+ designs. These have a somewhat higher net electric efficiency compared to current updated generation II reactors (35% - 39% compared to 33% - 35%, (TUD, 2006)) and allow for higher fuel burnup, higher fuel assay and a higher percentage of MOX in the fuel. These specifications mean less fuel is required per kWhe and a larger percentage of spent fuel can be reprocessed. They are also intrinsically safer than updated generation II reactors.

Development of new reactor designs is coordinated in the so-called Generation IV International Forum (GIF). This is a US-led grouping set up in 2001 and joined by the EU in 2005 which has identified six reactor concepts for further investigation with a view to commercial deployment by 2030 Comparative advantages compared to current technologies include reduced capital cost, enhanced nuclear safety, minimal generation of nuclear waste, and further reduction of the risk of weapons materials proliferation. Higher operational temperature will also result in higher energy efficiency and therefore lower spent fuel. Parallel to the Generation IV forum the Pebble Bed Modular Reactor (PBMR) is being developed in South Africa and China. Net efficiency will be 42%, burnup will be at least 90 GWday/tU but may be increased eventually to 200 GWday/tU. At a burnup of 90 GWday/tU the amount of spent fuel per unit of delivered electricity will be 60% smaller than for current Generation II reactors.


The steep increase in fossil fuel prices in the last years, the liberalisation of the internal electricity market in Europe and the EU Emissions Trading System (EU ETS) have brought back the focus to the costs of energy supply. Most power companies in Europe are by and large covered by the EU Emissions Trading System (EU ETS). The aim of the EU ETS is to help EU Member States achieve their commitments to limit or reduce greenhouse gas emissions in a cost-effective way. Allowing participating companies to buy or sell emission allowances means that emission cuts can be achieved at least cost. Nuclear power plants are not subject to a carbon price because, like renewables, generate little greenhouse gas emissions during normal operation.

To assess the cost competitiveness of nuclear power vis a vis other forms of energy one needs to take into account the construction cost of building the plant, the operating cost of running the plant and generating electricity (fuel costs represent a small proportion of total generating costs), the cost of waste disposal and the cost of decommissioning.

Nuclear power is a base load power production technology and competes primarily with coal and large scale hydropower. Compared to coal a new NPP requires approximately twice the investment for the same capacity. Operational costs for a new coal power plant amount to approximately EURct 2/kWhe ,including fuel costs (EUR 2/GJ) (CE, 2006).

Costs of nuclear power production are a subject of intense discussion and estimates range from very low costs of e.g. 2 EURct/kWhe to more than 10 EURct/kWhe (ECN, 2007). Production cost estimates for the intended EPR (European Pressurised Reactor) power plants in France amount to EURct 4,6/kWhe. Differences between estimated production costs are mainly due to differences in the applied depreciation methodology, depreciation period and interest rates. For investment costs a fairly narrow range is mentioned. Costs for insurance may make up 30% of total operational costs. Dismantling costs are covered by a fund created from sales during the operational lifetime of the plant. EC funding is also available for energy-related activities under the 7th Framework Programme, which runs from 2007-2013. FP7 nuclear research is guided by the EURATOM-treaty


Risks are determined by a probabilistic safety assessment (PSA). PSA is conducted at three levels:

  • Core melt (PSA 1);
  • Release of radioactive materials and radiation from a core melt or other events to the surroundings (PSA 2);
  • Occurrence of damage in the surroundings (PSA 3).

The legal limit for core melt frequency is 10-5 (IAEA, 2007). For the EPR (European pressurized reactor, generation III type reactor), but also for updated existing generation II LWR (Light Water Reactor) reactors the frequency is approximately 10-6 (ECN, 2007).

Accidents and resulting releases of radioactive material and radiation are categorized according to the INES scale International Nuclear Event Scale), with INES 7 referring to a major accident. The vast majority of reported events are found to be below Level 3. The Chernobyl accident is regarded in the nuclear power industry as a non representative exemption and is rated as an INES 7 event. Next to this accident one other INES 5 event and three INES 4 events have occurred since nuclear power production became commercially available. The INES 5 event, the Three Mile Island accident, is viewed in the nuclear industry as the evidence that a well designed power plant with a containment structure can absorb a partial core melt without an impact on its surroundings.

Older Soviet designs (RBMK and VVER 440 - 230) are assumed not to be able to conform to Western safety standards, despite extensive modifications in the last 15 years (WNA website, 2008). As a consequence Germany has closed down all former East German VVER 440 - 230 reactors and the EU has signed conventions with accessing former Eastern Block states (Lithuania, Bulgaria, Hungary, Slovakia) for the shut-down of the RBMK and first generation VVER on their territory. These conventions have met with political opposition in the four new member states because of the important role of nuclear power in these countries, as a consequence shut-down has been delayed in some cases.

Employability of PSA's has certain limitations because of uncertainties and lack of data about the frequency of initiating events, failure frequencies of equipment and an incomplete overview of all the different possible starting events (e.g. poorly understood physical phenomena or human actions) (NEA, 1992).

Distribution of nuclear power technology to unstable nations and reprocessing are the main focus of the discussion concerning non-proliferation. Reprocessing is viewed as a sensitive step because of the isolation of plutonium. The isolated plutonium could be used for construction of a primitive nuclear weapon. However, this requires significant technological knowhow and becomes more difficult with higher fuel burnup because the concentration of fissile Pu-239 in the plutonium isolated in reprocessing reduces with higher burnup, while the concentration of poorly fissile and fission hindering Pu-240 increases. The current trend in fuel utilization is increased burnup, reducing the applicability of the isolated plutonium.

Indicator specification and metadata

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


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.


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

Data sources

Generic metadata


Energy Energy (Primary topic)

energy | nuclear energy
DPSIR: Pressure
Typology: Descriptive indicator (Type A - What is happening to the environment and to humans?)
Indicator codes
  • ENER 013
Geographic coverage:
Belgium, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Finland, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Lithuania, Netherlands, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, United Kingdom

Contacts and ownership

EEA Contact Info

Anca-Diana Barbu

EEA Management Plan

2010 (note: EEA internal system)


Filed under: ,
European Environment Agency (EEA)
Kongens Nytorv 6
1050 Copenhagen K
Phone: +45 3336 7100