Nuclear Waste Management Overview & Opportunities

The challenges of the nuclear industry don’t stop at the production of the energy. Even after the electricity is made and distributed, the waste management issues come to the picture. The radioactivity can live for hundred thousand of years, and the radioactivity is very harmful to humans and the environment. Nuclear energy is the only power generation industry who integrate totally the waste management and fully incorporated into the product. The cost of managing and disposing of nuclear waste account for 5% of the total cost of the electricity generated which allow the industry to permanently have sufficient money to deal with the waste management.

According to IAEA, “in 2018 there is an estimated 250 000 tonnes of heavy metal (t HM) of spent fuel in storage worldwide and 120 000 t HM of reprocessed spent fuel. The current total global inventory of solid radioactive waste is approximately 35 million m³, of which 28.5 million m³ (82% of the total) has been disposed of permanently and a further 6.3 million m³ (18%) is in storage awaiting final disposal. More than 98% of solid waste is classified as being very low or low level waste in volume terms, with most of the remainder being intermediate level waste. In terms of total radioactivity, the situation is fully reversed, with approximately 98% of the radioactivity being associated with intermediate and high level waste.”

Categories of Nuclear Waste: 

Nuclear waste management is the techniques which allow nuclear companies to deal with the toxicity created during the process of generating energy. The aims of the companies are to reduce this harmful radioactivity of nuclear wastes through waste management. The authorities in charge of regulating waste management can vary around the world depending on the countries from federal authorities to regional states passing by regulatory bodies and environmental agencies.

Nuclear waste management can be categorizes depending on the source, type, or market. The sources could be divided in two, waste from nuclear power plant which is obviously the one that concern us the most in this article. Second source is from research & medicine using radioactive materials mainly generating low level waste (LLW).

Talking about low level waste, waste management is separated in 3 types: LLW have a much shorter radioactivity life than the others. The radioactive content does not exceed 4 giga-Becqurels per tonne (GBp/t) of alpha activity or 12 GBq/t beta-gamma activity, also, LLW can be stored on the surface and constitute 31% of the waste generated. Second is intermediate level waste (ILW) which have been exposed to alpha radiation, or contains long-lived radionuclides, it constitutes 33% of the waste. This type of waste needs shielding and containment for period over 100 years, typically the operators deals with the management of the waste they produce onsite. Finally, the most dangerous type is high level waste (HLW) responsible of 36% of the waste, it results from burning uranium fuel. HLW is composed of used fuel that has been designated as waste, and separated waste from reprocessing of used fuel.

Market is also divided by nuclear reactor from which Pressurized Water Reactors (PWR) have the biggest share accounting for 75% of the market. Then, reactor type comes to the picture such as Boiling Water Reactor (mainly used in USA, Japan, and Sweden), Gas Cooled Reactors, or pressurized heavy water reactors.

Nuclear Waste Overview:

The nuclear waste management market accounted for $1.382 Billion in 2015 and it’s expected to grow exponentially during the next decade according to “Transparency Market Research” with growth rate of approximately 16% to reach by 2024 $5.6 Billion. The main market for waste management is Europe and then followed by Asia which got a huge boost recently with the new builds in countries such as China and India.

Current Technologies: 

The technological advancement in the nuclear waste management industry are driven by state agencies such as ANDRA in France, KAERI in Korea, or BRIUG in China. Dr ElBaradei, Former Director-General of IAEA stated: “Over 50 countries currently have spent fuel stored in temporary locations, awaiting reprocessing or disposal. Not all countries have the appropriate geological conditions for such disposal – and, for many countries with small nuclear programs, the financial and human resources required for the construction and operation of a geological disposal facility are daunting.” Currently, there are three options widely used to store nuclear waste.  

First option is to store it in temporary pools or dry casks, the method is the following, after the fuel is being used it’s placed in water pools for ten years to decrease its radioactivity, then it’s contained in dry storage containers for a 50-year period. Around the world, there are 300,000 metric tons, generating 10,000 metric tons per year stored in temporary storage facilities (According to US Government Accountability Office).

Second option is to bury the waste deep underground for hundreds of thousands of years, it’s called “deep geological repository”. This is the safest way for the environment and humans, it will concern mainly High and Intermediate level waste; however, the biggest challenge is to find the adequate site, majority of countries have struggled with that due to the massive investment and the refusal of local authorities and people to have the site in their region. Nordic countries (Finland and Sweden) are ahead in that field and have progressed the most especially Finland which have identified the site and started the construction, the Olkiluoto facility is expected to start storing waste in underground repository from 2023. Other countries are actively looking for suitable sites and identified some as for USA in the Yucca Mountain (Nevada), France (Meuse / Haute-Marne), or China in Beishan (Gobi Desert); however, none of those sites have been approved yet for the reasons mentioned earlier.

Third option is to reprocess spent fuel for reuse, it can separate out usable uranium and plutonium. Reprocessing sounds like the best solution as it’s recycling the nuclear waste; however, that’s not the case because this method is very risky for the global stability. Many countries are banning reprocessing such as USA due to security issues, countries or individuals could use this method to the proliferation of nuclear weapons.


Opportunities of Nuclear worldwide and in Asia: 

The Nuclear waste market have been growing in the recent year and is expected to continue on the same path. Thanks to the increase of energy requirement in developing countries in addition to the shift to nuclear from fossil fuels as a result of concerns about global warming. Also, stricter regulation related to usage of efficient fuels is providing opportunities for international nuclear waste companies to access new markets.


China Focus:

China is the most promising country in the nuclear industry for almost all the nuclear value chain, and nuclear waste is no exception. As Asia has the most significant number of power generation projects in the pipeline, with China accounting for half of the world’s new nuclear power investment as for 2017. Based on expected installed nuclear generating capacity of 50 GWe by 2020, China’s annual used fuel arising will amount to about 1200 tons at that stage, the cumulative total being about 14,000 tons.

The low-level waste is stored at regional facilities near nuclear installations. On the other hand, High level waste is stored for the moment in pools at reactor sites; however, those pools capacities are near to saturation and China start shipping some of the spent fuel to Lanzhou Nuclear Fuel Complex. Furthermore, China is planning to start reprocessing nuclear waste in the near future to remedy to the current situation.


Concerning deep geological repositories China have start the building process of its first “Underground Research Laboratory” (URL) in Xinchang site in Beishan, and with operational repository to be operational before 2050.

China’s regulation for waste fund was approved by he state council in 2010 with a rate of 0.026 Yuan/KWh. This fund will be used for geological disposal, spent fuel transportation & storage, and reprocessing. For the moment, 2 regional I&LLW repositories are in operation already in China, Northwest I&LLW repository and Southwest I&LLW repository. Also, 5 new repositories were planned in the 13th 5-year plan. The institutional framework for waste management in China is as following:


  Chinese waste management program is facing some challenges which consist of the following:

  • Insufficient regulatory system to regulate all nuclear activities
  • Not enough support to the R&D activities for nuclear waste management; for instance, the budget for HLW R&D is very low compare to other Chinese energy projects, and HLW R&D has never been listed as a key national R&D program
  • Limited international cooperation on nuclear waste management; even though, the international cooperation exists between BRIUG and global counterparts such as ANDRA, JAEA, LBL, BGR… the cooperation should increase and strengthen

Local players in waste management industry:

  • CAEA (China Atomic Energy Authority)
  • CNNC (China National Nuclear Corporation)
  • BRUIG (Beijing Research Institute of Uranium Geology)
  • Everclean Company
  • CNPE (China Nuclear Power Engineering Co Ltd)
  • NPIC (Nuclear Power Institute of China)
  • CIAE (China Institute of Atomic Energy)

India Focus: 

Likewise China, India have a very ambitious nuclear program with many projects of new builds are either under-construction or planned. Waste Management opportunities are arising alongside. India is dealing with the entire fuel cycle from mining for uranium till reprocessing as portrayed in the following figure. India is still an inexperience country with nuclear waste management compared to the US or European countries, for such the Indian waste market is a great platform for collaboration between India and international waste management companies.

The Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB) is the organisation in charge of promulgating safety standards and policies. It is involved in the regulations concerning design policies, radiation exposure targets and waste management. India most used storage method is vitrification, and after that storage in steel canisters. India dispose of two geological facilities in Tarapur and Trombay, but the conquest to find more suitable geological places is ongoing.


Japan Focus: 

Japan is one of the biggest markets for waste management and decommissioning.  Japan has 44 operating reactors, however, due to Fukushima Daiichi incident, many of those reactors have stopped operating. Japan has 26 operators remaining in long-term outage, despite the gradual beginning the process of restarting reactors.


Waste management in Japan falls under the supervision of governmental bodies. First is the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI), which have a subdivision called Agency of Nuclear and Industrial Safety (ANIS) in charge of regulating the safety of NPPs, commercial fuel facilities and radioactive waste facilities. Second is Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports Science, and Technology (MEXT) responsible for nuclear administrative functions for research and development. Third and fourth are respectively Atomic Energy Commision (AEC) and Nuclear Safety commission (NSC).

Those institutions are responsible of the waste management facilities within Japan territory, which have many storing facilities for both HLW and LLW see the table below.


Japan does reprocessing of the fuel via outsourcing, the reprocessing is dealt with by both France and UK companies Formally AREVA and British Nuclear Fuels Ltd. (BNFL) after that the vitrified residues are sent back to Japan to be stored there in JNFL in Rokkasho (see the figure below for more details).


Japan’s location in a highly seismic area makes nuclear waste management increasingly difficult. Moving forward, Japan will continually deal with the management of radioactive waste as a matter of national security. As a result, waste management and decommissioning are priorities for the Japanese program which create plenty of opportunities for international players.


Key International Players: 

Nuclear waste management market is a niche market constitute mainly of European and American firms. Traditional big houses of nuclear industry are leading the way US, France, and UK; however, surprisingly Finnish companies are well positioned as well in this domain of waste management and decommissioning with companies such as Posiva. Following a list of the main actors of waste management.

By |2019-07-17T12:34:28+08:00July 17th, 2019|nuclear-industry|0 Comments