Radioactive Waste Challenge for European Integration and Enlargement: Soviet Nuclear Legacy in Central and Eastern Europe After 1989

This is part of our special feature, Confronting Waste.

When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, the countries of the socialist block moved to redefine international alliances and quickly reestablished ties with the members of the European Communities (EC). The EC (soon to become the European Union) suddenly found themselves engaged with the formerly socialist Central and Eastern European (CEE) nations in grappling with a variety of economic, political, cultural, environmental, and techno-scientific issues. Indeed, the former socialist nations brought with them into European integration hundreds of thousands of cubic meters of high level radioactive waste (RAW) and spent nuclear fuel (SNF) from nearly thirty nuclear power reactors of Soviet design. Several of these reactors date to the early 1970s, and several of them have closed down, but the RAW and SNF problems persist—as they do among all nuclear nations, including European ones. Progress has been slow in finding ways to manage and store high-level RAW and SNF for the long-term, with only Finland approaching completion of a deep underground storage facility, and with French and Swedish efforts having been delayed by technical and political problems—some of them involving local stakeholders. On top of this, during the last three decades debates about nuclear energy and radioactive waste in Europe have been influenced by concerns about climate change, sustainable energy development, energy security, and non-proliferation.

One can argue that the joining of eastern and western RAW and SNF problems forced the EU to push for a much bolder common strategy in finding solutions for the waste. How has the EU—with CEE nations—grappled with this issue? How did socialist “waste” contribute to EU efforts in terms of conventions, programs, and definitions of waste and security?

Chernobyl Aftermath in Europe: From “Dangerous Reactors” to Radioactive Waste Problems

The Euratom Treaty of 1957 was one of the founding treaties of the European Community, but did not fully contribute to technical and institutional competencies to develop common policies and regulations in the domain of nuclear safety and waste management; it relied on national governments and institutions for that (Sauruggier 2002; Taylor 2003). In the 1970s and early 1980s, the EC Council of ministers adopted several non-binding documents that laid the groundwork in this area, for example a 1980 resolution on the implementation of a Community plan of action on radioactive waste for the period of 1980-1992 (Council of the European Communities 1980). The plan was later renewed until 1999.

This slow path to harmonization of efforts was inadequate in the post-Chernobyl and post-Cold War context when EU states had to mobilize common competencies and instruments urgently both to analyze and to remediate the state of nuclear and radioactive waste facilities in the former Soviet bloc countries. There were competing views about how exactly to do this in terms of expertise, regulatory principles and institutions to be involved, and some doubt about whether even to add an additional layer of regulation considering the existence of such organizations as the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) and WANO (World Association of Nuclear Operators). Many experts considered IAEA non-binding safety recommendations, which ultimately evolved into the Convention on Nuclear Safety (1994) and the Joint Convention on the Safety of Spent Fuel Management and on the Safety of Radioactive Waste Management (1997), as rather effective. As for WANO, it was created by 144 companies in 1989 in response to the Chernobyl disaster to foster cooperation between operators of the nuclear stations through peer-review visits, exchanges and policy recommendations.

Yet, preparation for the enlargement of the EU with the CEE countries suggested the need for a specifically European approach to the problems of safety and waste. Within the EC, several Directorate generals (DGs) competed initially to become the decision center with regard to the nuclear energy and safety in the candidate countries: the DG XVII (Energy), DG XI (Environment, nuclear safety and civil protection) and DG IA (External Relations), responsible for instance for the technical assistance program for CEE countries called PHARE (Poland Hungary Aid for Reconstruction of the Economy, 1990 – 2006). PHARE had an important nuclear safety dimension. In addition, West European nuclear industry actors established several consortia to complement the insufficient nuclear safety expertise of EC institutions, including Cassiopée, a consortium of organizations responsible for nuclear waste management (Sauruggier 2002, 59-60).

Immediate attention focused on the questions of nuclear safety and negotiations to upgrade and perhaps decommission a series of Soviet-designed reactors. While all of these reactors received significant upgrades, three future EU members, Lithuania, Bulgaria, and Slovakia, ultimately had to close several or all of their reactors that were considered particularly unsafe—six in total. The East-West cooperation in this domain has been rather well documented (Connolly and List 1996; Foss 1999; Wellock 2013; Meredith 2014). This cooperation often appears in the literature as a process of “transmission” and “translation” of the norms, knowledge and practices developed by Western experts into CEE contexts and on compliance of “Eastern” nuclear operators and national governments.

Concerns over spent nuclear fuel and radioactive waste were not as significant, if present from the late 1980s, and this may explain why the East-West exchanges in this domain have attracted little scholarly interests (see, however Konopásek et al. 2018). Cooperation in the area of radioactive waste handling was different from other environmental matters because of the fact that the establishment of many of the European nuclear regulatory instruments in this area of environmental concern occurred almost simultaneously with the processes of the democratic transition and Europeanization of CEE (Taylor 2003; European Commission 2002, 2007; Council of the European Union 2011). In Western Europe, indeed, this period was characterized by growing social and political conflicts around the siting of radioactive waste repositories, the lack of progress made in this area (with the exception of Finland and Sweden), and increasing awareness of the need for greater public participation and transparency in finding durable waste solutions (Solomon et al. 2010; Bergmans et al. 2015; Brunnengräber et al. 2015). Indeed, EU-CEE cooperation over radioactive waste management contributed significantly to harmonization of approaches at the EU level and, arguably, to greater overall progress towards finding long-term solutions.  

Why a Common EU Framework for RAW?

What were the early achievements in matters of nuclear waste? Cassiopée, established in February 1993 with representatives of national radioactive waste agencies of France, the Netherlands, Germany, Spain, the UK, and Belgium, strove to attract attention to the importance of waste problems in CEE. Some members believe that one of their first successes was precisely “to persuade the respective financial authorities that radwaste problems were as equally important as other nuclear safety issues and that not to divert some resource to addressing them would only be storing up bigger problems for the future” (Codée et al. 1999, 1).  Cassiopée accomplished studies of RAW management practices in 1993-1994 and 1997-1998 in all candidate countries. Cassiopée experts advised the CEE countries on how to develop national RAW management strategies and institutions, helping them to identify priorities and prepare technical, legal and institutional aspects of specific projects.

Each of these accomplishments was significant. No CEE country had had a special independent agency responsible for management and disposal of waste. Further, the nuclear programs of the CEE countries were based on the agreement that all the SNF from these reactors would be returned to the Soviet Union (Russia). Nuclear power plants were not equipped with a complete RAW treatment system (see on Czech and Slovak case Vokál and Stoch 2013). In addition, they had little experience with decommissioning projects and were ill-prepared for the early closure of eight reactors deemed unsafe that had to be closed. Cassiopée’s experts were involved, indeed, in such important projects as the decommissioning of Bohunice A1 reactor in Slovakia and Ignalina NPP in Lithuania, and the creation of the National Czech RAW management agency (RAWRA) and repository site selection in Hungary (Codée et al. 1999).

As the European Commission attempted with the help of a variety of waste organizations, industry and engineering groups to evaluate the RAW and SNF, situation, questions arose about how to insure they were managed safely in the candidate countries once they became EU members. This forced questions about the protracted deferment of the disposal of high-level radioactive waste in most of the countries that were already member States to resurface. In this way, East-West cooperation in dealing with Soviet nuclear legacies together with European enlargement created the groundwork for formulating and testing new European regulations. The adoption of a so-called “nuclear package” by the European Commission in 2002 on the eve of EU enlargement is an example of how the EU addressed these concerns.

The “nuclear package” included a series of documents aimed at ensuring a high level of nuclear safety and a proposal for new Euratom directives on the safety of nuclear installations and on management of SNF and RAW (European Commission 2002). As Derek M. Taylor, an advisor on nuclear energy at the Directorate-General for Energy and Transport pointed out, two major forces were behind the package: the need to ensure energy security, taking into account climate change, and the need to ensure nuclear safety in an enlarged EU (Taylor 2003). The proposed package, however, sparked serious controversies about whether the European Community had competencies in the nuclear safety and RAW areas, and about what the added value would be of a binding EU approach to that problem (see, for example, House of Lords, European Union Committee 2006). The controversies were so important that in 2004 member countries decided not to continue negotiations on the proposed directives, but instead engaged in a consultative process among different stakeholders. Negotiations on the waste directive restarted only in 2010. What were the main disagreements?

Competition Between Formal and Informal Approaches to Harmonization in Nuclear Safety an RAW Management

Many parties argued that Euratom arrangements did not provide explicitly for the Community’s responsibility in nuclear safety, including RAW and SNF. The signed treaty required only the fixing of common standards in the area of radiation protection for workers. When, in January 2000, the Community joined the IAEA Convention on Nuclear Safety as an institutional member, member state representatives pointed precisely at these limitations. This disagreement was brought to the European Court of Justice, which ruled in 2002 that “it is not appropriate to draw an artificial distinction between the protection of the health of the general public and the safety of sources of ionising radiation” (Court of Justice of the European Union 2002). This confirmed that Euratom possessed competences regarding such essential domains of nuclear safety as siting, construction and operation, setting safety regulations, emergency preparedness and so on. Euratom became a contracting party of the IAEA Joint Convention on the Safety of Spent Fuel Management and on the Safety of Radioactive Waste Management in January 2006. All EU member states are also contracting parties of these two conventions.

Most EU and CEE countries seemed to agree that harmonization of national approaches to the management of RAW and SNF is an honorable goal. They also considered that most of them needed additional pressure “to do something better than always postponing the decision on waste,” as a French Nuclear Safety Authority representative put it at a hearing of the British House of Lords (House of Lords, European Union Committee 2006, 23). Indeed, interim storage of highly radioactive waste was being used as an efficient short-term solution that allowed postponing decisions related to final disposal of the waste. Several EU countries that attempted by the early 2000s to build repositories, for instance Finland, Sweden and France, understood just how contentious and costly these decisions were.

Yet, many observers resisted the idea that the resolution of SNF and RAW problems should be achieved through formal binding legislation on the EU level. A number of governments and organizations expressed fears that given the contentious nature of nuclear energy issues, including radioactive waste disposal, allowing the community to impose legislation on member countries exposed them to the risk that national sovereign choices for or against nuclear energy would be questioned (House of Lords, European Union Committee 2006). The EC proposals also raised debate over the possibility of multinational repositories. If the Commission insisted that radioactive waste must be disposed of within the EU (and not exported somewhere outside, for instance to Russia), then member states would be pushed to cooperate to create regional solutions (Darst and Dawson 2008, 24-27). Nuclear officials in Finland, which in 2016 became the first country to start building a final disposal facility for SNF, also feared that the country might be forced to accept waste from other EU members (House of Lords, European Union Committee 2006, 38). These opponents to all-EU legislation thus believed the best path was informal cooperation between relevant national organizations and experts, and the convergence of best practices through such forums as Western Nuclear Regulators’ Association (WENRA), the Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA), or even the IAEA.

For many specialists, WENRA, created in February 1999, was precisely the perfect example of the informal approach toward harmonization of practices. André-Claude Lacoste, formerly Head of the French Nuclear Safety Authority and first chairperson of WENRA, emphasized that WENRA’s difference was that it was a “club” of chief regulators and not a formal association of countries, and that its cooperative efforts were bottom-up and entirely voluntary (WENRA 2014). Created on the eve of EU enlargement, WENRA arose from the actions of leading nuclear regulators of ten EU nuclear nations who decided to use their legal and technical competences to find feasible ways to harmonize and assess safety in candidate countries. WENRA produced two important reports on nuclear safety in CEE in 1999 and 2000 that were based on information from multilateral cooperation projects, in particular the PHARE programme, and also fostered bilateral contacts. They recommended the closure of several reactors in Bulgaria, Slovakia and Lithuania. In March 2003, nuclear safety regulators in seven candidate countries became members of WENRA. After enlargement, WENRA continued to work on common approaches to safety and regulation through working groups on reactor harmonization (RHWG) and waste and decommissioning (WGWD).

The European Commission’s approach to harmonization appeared to many as too heavy-handed and politically charged. Many partisans of the informal approach, like Lacoste, insisted that the additional value of the two new nuclear directives was far from being self-evident and that they would open the way for more European binding legislation (WENRA 2014). While the European Parliament strongly supported the idea of binding legislation, the proposals for the new EURATOM pieces of legislation, including one on waste, failed to be approved by a qualified majority of the Council of the European Union in May 2004. Instead, the Council adopted non-legally binding “conclusions” stating the commitment of member states to a high level of nuclear safety including in the area of radioactive waste management (Taylor 2005).

Ultimately, several substantial changes to the 2011 directive on radioactive waste were introduced, for example, the removal of a fixed deadline to start operation of final waste storage facilities. The directive instead emphasized the need to establish national management programs with clear timetables for the long-term management of all radioactive waste, where possible giving priority to deep geological burial of waste, and also the need to provide sufficient support, coordination and funding for research on waste management. Finally, and arguably most importantly, the Directive sought to ensure transparency and systematic public participation in decision-making (Council of the European Union 2011).

The Role of the Public in Focus

Indeed, reference to public participation, information, and consultation, and the need for transparency and responsibility occupy a central place in the debates about the EU harmonized approach to nuclear waste. Many opponents to the “nuclear package” denounced it (if some actually supported it), seeing the use of EU legislation as merely a political tool to influence the debate about the future of nuclear energy, and  to appease anti-nuclear sentiments (House of Lords, European Union Committee 2006, 26).

The EU Commission pointed to the lack of a definitive long-term solution for the disposal of highly radioactive waste as an obstacle to keeping the nuclear option open, which was seen as the Commission’s preference to insure energy security while mitigating climate change. In November 2000, in its Green Paper entitled “Towards a European strategy for the security of energy supply,” it argued that keeping the nuclear power option open would help both the security of the energy supply and climate change mitigation. However, “nuclear cannot develop without a consensus that gives it a long enough period of stability, bearing in mind the economic and technological constraints of the industry. This will only be the case when the waste issue finds a satisfactory solution with maximum transparency” (Commission of the European Communities 2000).

Many pro-nuclear experts supported the European Commission in its efforts to force its members to find a solution to the waste problem in order “to help remove roadblocks” to the development of nuclear power (House of Lords, European Union Committee 2006, 26). In spite of the pro-nuclear orientation of EC proposals, their focus on the importance of public participation in radioactive waste policy-making was something on which both pro- and anti-nuclear activists could agree. In this context, Finland and Sweden have received almost unanimous praise for ensuring public participation in decisions on planning and siting geological repositories, and as examples to follow to increase public trust—and, for some, support for nuclear energy.

The crucial role of the public with regard to the RAW issue and the risk of its instrumentalization in EU nuclear energy politics have been extensively treated in the academic literature.  Important social science research on high-level nuclear waste (Solomon et al., 2010 for a survey) has shown that the solution to siting and building final repositories for such waste is not only, or even mainly, technical and scientific, but social and political, and that progress can be made to open safe facilities only with robust democratic institutions and adequate public participation (Sundqvist and Elam 2010; Lehtonen 2010; Kuppler 2012; Bergmans et al. 2015). These conclusions echo the extensive work on the different mechanisms of citizen control over science and technology policies, examination of the nature of public dialogue between experts and non-experts (Callon et al. 2001; Jasanoff 2003), and studies of the lasting asymmetries of resources and power between different actors (Pestre 2013; Topçu 2013). These asymmetries of power, some authors have concluded, limit the impact on the decision-making process that appears to be only “an elaborate exercise in achieving premature legitimation for a predetermined policy” (Blowers 2010, 162).

The situation of CEE countries that became new EU members has been quite different in this regard. Unlike the western EU countries where public consultation and participation mechanisms and institutions pre-existed the attempts to find solutions for high-level waste, the newly democratic regimes had to learn to manage a technology that produces toxic waste, in a situation in which the role of public stakeholders radically changed from the socialist period. Studies of the Czech case identify democratic deficits in policy making in nuclear waste management, and question whether current participatory experiences are superficial adaptations of what remains very closed and technocratic policy-making (Dawson and Darst 2006; Bursik 2015; Ocelík et al. 2017; Konopásek et al. 2018). Hence, new European legislation and initiatives in this area have created new opportunities and stimuli to be involved actively in decisions over the disposition of RAW and SNF for NGOs and civil society actors in Eastern and Western European countries. These actors have been monitoring the implementation of waste handling strategies in different countries, participating in East-West networks that allow them to share experiences, and mobilizing to press political authorities to respect—if not welcome—their involvement.

For example, such a network as the Joint Project – Nuclear Risk and Public Control includes European NGOs and research institutions from Austria, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania and Poland that since 2003 have cooperated on anti-nuclear activities in CEE. Another example, Nuclear Transparency Watch, is a European network established in 2013 at the initiative of the members of the European Parliament that promotes a citizen watch on nuclear safety and transparency including in the area of radioactive waste management. Both networks have closely monitored the implementation of radioactive waste policies and regulations in EU countries, including the Euratom directive on management of spent fuel and radioactive waste (Council of the European Union 2011) and directives related do environmental assessment for public plans or programs and individual technological projects (European Parliament and Council of the European Union 2001, 2011).

As this rich and complex institutional, legislative and technical history shows, EU policies toward SNF and RAW have evolved significantly since the fall of the Berlin Wall. At first, many specialists and policy makers, especially those in Western Europe, worried primarily about the safety of nuclear power reactors in the CEE.  Indeed, a number of commissions worked on the question of safety that forced the closing of several Soviet-designed reactors. The expansion of the EU with CEE countries also led to a reckoning with SNF and RAW, not only at CEE stations but throughout Europe. Over the next decades, as CEE specialists and publics were drawn into discussions over nuclear safety and radioactive waste, they ceased to be seen as junior partners to EU directives about what to do to ensure the future of nuclear power and nuclear safety. Rather, they were also recognized for their special experiences and expertise in these matters. Yet, this did not mean it was an easy path to final decisions about how and where to store RAW and what to do with SNF.  Instead, there were continuing discussions over whether national sovereignty in these matters should take precedence over all-EU legislation and determinations. The formation of such professional organizations as WENRA and various citizens’ groups and NGOs to debate the EU’s nuclear future and how to involve the public in decision-making about nuclear waste has followed and reflected challenges in arriving at some universally accepted solution to the long-term disposal of RAW and SNF. It is a debate that is tantalizingly close to conclusion and yet, like waste itself, still waiting for a conclusion – as part of larger discussions over energy security, climate change, and so on.

Tatiana Kasperski is a Research Fellow at the Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona, Spain, and is a member of the collective research project “Atomic Heritage goes Critical: Waste, Community and Nuclear Imaginaries” based at the Stockholm University, Sweden ( After earning her PhD in political science in 2012 at Sciences Po, Paris, she has worked on public engagement with nuclear power in Russia and Ukraine. She was as a postdoctoral fellow at Centre Alexandre-Koyré, Paris, a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Fellow at the Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona, Spain, and a member of a Horizon 2020 research project on the History of Nuclear Energy and Society in Europe (HoNESt) coordinated by Pompeu Fabra University. She has published research articles in such journals as History and Technology, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Revue Internationale de Politique Comparée, and Centaurus.


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Published on May 7, 2019.

Photo: Radioactive waste barrels | Shutterstock


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