Radioactive waste from Europe’s 143 nuclear reactors must remain buried deeply in secure bunkers, not in surface containment, European Union ministers said.
The new rules force national nuclear authorities to draw up disposal plans by 2015, which Europe’s energy commissioner Guenther Oettinger will analyze.
The 14 European Union member states using nuclear power currently store the radioactive waste in surface bunkers or warehouses for decades while it cools down.
Russia’s wildfires last summer and, even more recently, the leakage at Japan’s stricken Fukushima plant highlighted the risks posed by surface storage.
Oettinger made nuclear safety one of the main issues of his five-year tenure, pushing ministers to develop a pan-European safety strategy for the first time.
The first step is a series of “stress tests” on nuclear plants, which started in June. The second is Tuesday’s decision to dispose of spent nuclear fuel in secure repositories.
Oettinger’s team, which will vet the national strategies, has already stated its preference for “deep geological repositories,” caverns built in clay or granite rocks between 100 and 700 meters underground.
Safety standards drawn up by the International Atomic Energy Agency will also become legally binding as part of the plan.
Oettinger initially proposed a total ban on exports of radioactive waste to other countries for reprocessing, but ministers created a loophole for future exports. Instead, waste can ship to countries that already have deep geological storage.
“At present, such deep geological repositories do not exist anywhere in the world nor is a repository in construction outside of the EU,” said Oettinger’s team. “It takes currently a minimum of 40 years to develop and build one.”
The EU’s 143 nuclear plants produce about 50,000 cubic meters (1.77 million cu ft) of radioactive waste each year, says nuclear industry body Foratom. About 15 percent of that is high level waste.