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Eastern Europe: Agreement On Nuclear Waste May Solve Disposal Problems

Vienna, 8 September 1997 (RFE/RL) - More than 60 states have endorsed an agreement on rules for handling nuclear waste and spent nuclear fuel. This first international agreement on the storage and disposal of nuclear waste was reached at a conference last week hosted by the Vienna-based, United Nations International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

The agreement is scheduled to be signed by IAEA members when the agency hold its annual general conference this month.

Last week's Vienna conference focused on the safe management, storage and disposal of spent nuclear fuel and radioactive waste in countries with and without nuclear programs.

An IAEA spokesman told RFE/RL that Eastern European countries were "actively participating" in pushing forward the agreement. Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary are all eager to reach some agreement on disposal because since the disunion of the USSR, these countries have had to rely increasingly on storing nuclear waste themselves -- and many interim storage sites are now close to capacity.

According to environmentalists, the problem is especially bad in Bulgaria, where its nuclear power program is in danger of coming to a halt, because of lack of storage facilities for waste.

Russia no longer acts as it did in the 1980s as a repository for nuclear waste. And, Turkey has voiced concern that dangerous, spent nuclear fuel from Eastern Europe will pass through the Dardenelles just kilometres from Turkey's shores. The same concern was voiced about shipments through other Mediterranean passages.

According to IAEA General Director Hans Blix, "international norms including binding conventions and standards on a range of safety related issues have come to be seen as an element of promotion of a global safety culture."

The IAEA says the draft "Convention on the Safety of Spent Fuel Management and on the Safety of Radioactive Waste Management" is "a major step" beyond the previously existing consensus. The agreement includes setting up of a monitoring board, financial assistance and "emergency preparedness" programs. According to the IAEA, additional requirements relate to cross-border movement of spent fuel and radioactive waste, to the discharge of radioactive materials into the environment. The agreement, however, does not cover radioactive waste or spent fuel from military programs, unless the materials have been transferred to "exclusively civilian programs."

Among the problems Eastern Europe has faced in getting rid of its radioactive waste has been high costs. In Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia, Soviet-designed reactors built in the 1970s did not take account sorting or removing solid waste, which led to expensive developments, mainly relying on the excessive use of stainless steel, to build waste treatment and storage facilities.

A spokeswoman for the Austrian environmental group "Global 2000" said "countries like the Czech Republic and Slovakia do not know where to get rid of their waste." She adds, these countries cannot find anyone to take it, and so have built interim storage facilities.

"Russia is 'dead' as far as a place where these countries can send their radioactive waste," she said.

According to a recent IAEA report: "Changes in the politics and trading relationships of Eastern European countries are affecting their spent-fuel management policies. For example, Russia now requires payment for services in hard currency -- at world prices.

Bulgaria is also looking at developing its nuclear-waste policies. The Kozloduy reactor on the Danube has virtually filled up all its free storage space. And, Russia -- the supplier of most of Eastern Europe's nuclear fuel -- now requires spent fuel be stored for a period of five years before it can be shipped back.

The nuclear plant at Dukovany represents the main source of spent nuclear fuel in the Czech Republic. Nuclear fuel was originally supposed to be sent back to Russia, but this stopped in 1988. Czech nuclear authorities have expanded their own storage facilities, and more interim storage space is being created at the Temelin plant.

Slovakia is, according to the IAEA, in danger of filling up its spent fuel storage space by the year 2001.

(Tom Hagler is a Vienna-based journalist, who -- along with other members of the Central European News (CEN) agency -- routinely contributes to RFE/RL.)