IAEA reviews Belgium’s radioactive waste and used fuel

20 December 2023

An International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Integrated Review Service for Radioactive Waste and Spent Fuel Management, Decommissioning and Remediation (ARTEMIS) team of experts found that Belgium demonstrated commitment to the safe management of its radioactive waste and used fuel. The 11-day mission was carried out at the request of Belgium and hosted by ONDRAF/NIRAS, the Belgian National Agency for Radioactive Waste & Enriched Fissile Material management.

Belgium manages high-level waste from the five nuclear reactors in operation at the Doel and Tihange NPPs which, in 2022, provided roughly 47.3% of its electricity. Waste is also managed from an additional two reactors which have been permanently shut down. Belgium delayed plans to close its nuclear reactors by 2025 and reached a government agreement with Engie - operator of the two NPPs - to extend operation of Doel 4 and Tihange 3 until to 2035.

Low- and intermediate-level radioactive waste is generated from the production and use of radiation sources in medical and industrial applications, as well as in science and research activities such as at the Belgian Nuclear Research Centre (SCK CEN). Waste is also generated from the decommissioning of research reactors such as BR2 and BR3 and the decommissioning of industrial facilities that covered almost all activities in the nuclear fuel cycle, including the Eurochemic pilot reprocessing plant, Belgonucléaire mixed-oxide fuel (MOX) fabrication facility and the FBFC International UO2 fuel fabrication facility.

Radioactive waste and used fuel in Belgium are managed by ONDRAF/NIRAS after acceptance. The Belgian National Programme for the Management of Used Fuel & Radioactive Waste, adopted in October 2015, comprises a national strategy for the management. It is expected that Belgium will publish an update of the National Programme in due time after the ARTEMIS mission and the finalisation of the intermediate Government agreement with Engie to extend the life of Doel 4 and Tihange 3.

Results from the IAEA Integrated Regulatory Review Service (IRRS) mission to Belgium, conducted in June 2023, were taken into account by the ARTEMIS team during its review, where relevant.

The team comprised seven experts from Austria, Finland, France, Slovenia, the UK and the USA, as well as three IAEA staff members. One expert from the European Commission was invited to observe the mission. The team met with officials from ONDRAF/NIRAS, the Federal Agency for Nuclear Control (FANC), SCK CEN, the Directorate-General for Energy, Synatom (in charge of management of the fuel cycle of Belgian NPPs) and the Commission for Nuclear Provisions (CNP). 

The ARTEMIS team said that Belgium has established a robust national infrastructure for the management of radioactive waste and spent fuel and the implementation of decommissioning and remediation activities over the last decades. It found that ONDRAF/NIRAS demonstrates strong commitment to the long-term management of high-level and long-lived waste and used fuel. This includes management of waste from historical radium production, used fuel management options and the establishment of geological disposal plans for the preparation of a deep geological repository that will require continuing research and development activities and wide public consultations.

“The team saw that the responsible organisations in Belgium are strongly committed to the radioactive waste and used fuel management. They have put in place a waste management system that is well adapted to the current situation and are preparing to take the necessary measures until the end of the life cycle of their nuclear facilities,” said the ARTEMIS team leader, Jussi Heinonen, Director at the Radiation & Nuclear Safety Authority (STUK) in Finland. “Further progress is still needed in the comprehensive coverage of national policies guiding the implementation of the programme.”

The ARTEMIS Review Team identified good practices in the Belgian approach towards centralized management of all radioactive waste by Belgoprocess (a subsidiary of ONDRAF/NIRAS) contributing to the minimisation of radioactive waste, as well as in the approach for remediation of the former Olen radium and uranium production site leading to waste minimisation.

The challenges identified by the team to be addressed by Belgium in waste management include the need for consolidated policies for specific waste streams such as radium-bearing waste and used fuel, and decision making on the geological repository. The team said the provision of adequate financial and human resources will be crucial to ensure timely implementation of such policies.

The main recommendations and suggestions included:

  • The Government should formulate well-defined national policies on used fuel management options and the management of radioactive waste from radium production.
  • The Government should ensure that waste streams that are non-conforming – those requiring further processing – or have no clear end point should be included in the National Programme with proposed management options.
  • The Government should establish a comprehensive geological disposal policy for the management of high-level waste and spent fuel and complete the process of establishing safety requirements and a licensing scheme specific to disposal facilities.
  • ONDRAF/NIRAS should focus main resources on solutions that are technically feasible and internationally acknowledged for the long-term management of high-level waste and used fuel of the Belgian inventory.
  • The Government should consider enhancing the harmonisation and justification of financial parameters to be used by all actors in the management of radioactive waste.

Hildegarde Vandenhove, IAEA Director of the Division of Radiation, Transport and Waste Safety, speaking at the closing session, said she was confident that recommended improvements related to the safe management of radioactive waste and used fuel, such as to enhance the national policies and arrangements for eventual disposal, will be considered and implemented by the respective stakeholder.

“Belgium values the review and its outcomes in the current framework of our national programme where we have on the one hand significant recent evolutions and progress, in particular concerning the licence for a surface disposal facility, the decision-in-principle for deep geological disposal as well as the launching of the project for radium-bearing waste, said Marc Demarche, Director General of ONDRAF/NIRAS. “But we are also facing important and difficult challenges for continued progress, in particular about the operationalization of the low-level waste repository or the pursuit of the deep disposal project”.

The final mission report will be provided to the Government in two months.

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