Colloquia IFIC - Severo Ochoa

Scientific research addressing the problem of nuclear legacy

by Prof. Bernd Grambow (Subatech)


The world’s first nuclear reactor, the Chicago Pile 1, went critical on December 2nd, 1942. This human-made, self-sustaining, nuclear chain-reaction heralded the age of nuclear energy and nuclear weapons. The legacy of these activities includes large volumes of radioactive wastes, shuttered and in some case decommissioned facilities used to make nuclear weapons or nuclear power, extraction sites for radioactive minerals and sites contaminated by the testing of weapons, as well sites of accidental releases of radioactivity (e.g., at the Mayak site/Russia, the Hanford site/USA, Sellafield/UK, Chernobyl/Ukraine, and Fukushima Daiichi/Japan). Spent nuclear fuel has accumulated around the world. The total inventory of non-reprocessed fuel has reached some 250,000 metric tonnes at hundreds of different sites. In addition some 120,000 metric tonnes have been reprocessed1, creating large volumes of high-level radioactive waste.

Although many efforts have been made to remediate shuttered and contaminated sites, and though radioactive waste repositories are planned at many places and some are already realised, there is no common international roadmap for a societally acceptable strategy to reduce the environmental and actual and potential health burdens at an affordable cost. The environmental and societal impact of this nuclear legacy continues to expand.

The costs in some countries are high. A large number of nuclear power plants and other facilities in Europe will need to be decommissioned in the upcoming decades (estimated costs around 253 bn €2). Total projected costs for present legacy waste in the US are more than 235 bn $3. Due to the evolving regulatory, political and social frames as well as to emergence of unanticipated contaminations, it is likely that the accumulated financial provisions will not suffice to cover all future costs for decommissioning, waste management, and remediation of contaminated sites.

Using international pilot legacy sites (CLADS/Fukushima…), we need to develop an international science-for-policy platform for nuclear legacy by an innovative, operational and independent international initiative that supports a combination of natural and social science analyses of the forces and conditions characterizing the global nuclear legacy, integrating longer chains of causality and interactions including biological, geological, health, governance, multigenerational, and social factors. Collaborative scientific research is necessary between geosciences, radiochemistry, nuclear physics, medicine, toxicology, data science, demography, history, sociology, legal sciences, remote sensing, and landscape management to informing policies, national and international legal frameworks, and regulations on local, national, regional and global scales. The research shall be conducted in different areas on different nuclear legacy issues by different research groups around the world, with different variables of interest, but they shall share the same conceptual framework. Addressing epistemological controversies surrounding radiological risk, is vital for improving public confidence and public policies for any proposed remediation action.




1? IAEA Nuclear Energy Series No. NW-T-1.14 (2018)

2? The Guardian, 4/4/2016


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