Radioactive waste and radiation protection

Everyone is exposed to natural radiation every day. In Germany, the annual effective dose from this natural radiation exposure amounts to 2.1 millisieverts on average. In addition, radiation is used for specific purposes – in medicine or in research and technology, for example. Germany’s Radiation Protection Ordinance (Strahlenschutzverordnung) therefore sets limit values for the general population and for persons who are occupationally exposed to radiation. To ensure compliance with these limit values, specific safeguards must be put in place.

Different types of waste – different risks

Some waste streams from nuclear power plants are extremely hazardous to health and the environment and require safe disposal. They include fuel elements, which are highly radioactive, as well as various other types of waste produced during the operation or dismantling of nuclear facilities. These waste streams must be held in an interim storage facility until a repository is available for their final storage. Nuclear reactors also produce various waste by-products which are not radioactive or which can be decontaminated and disposed of as conventional waste. However, they must first undergo a process known as clearance. Here too, limit values apply: the levels are defined in such a way that the annual effective dose from these cleared substances may not exceed 10 microsieverts for any member of the public. The regulations also give due consideration to the food chain.

Final storage in deep geological formations

High-level radioactive waste, by contrast, will remain dangerous for time spans seemingly beyond human comprehension: no building or facility could possibly contain it safely and securely for long enough. This type of waste must therefore be placed in final storage in deep geological formations – the option recommended by the German Commission on the Storage of High-Level Radioactive Waste in its final report, submitted in 2016. Since September 2017, Germany has been searching systematically for a suitable final storage site.

Meticulous planning and preparation

Through its CEO Michael Sailer, the Oeko-Institut was directly involved in developing the process for organising the search for a site, formulating the criteria that must be met by a future repository and designing transparent site selection procedures. The Oeko-Institut researchers work on a range of topics relating to radioactive waste and radiation protection, including clearance of dismantling waste, reuse of landfills used to store rubble from dismantling, and interim storage, which will be required for several decades to come.