Hazardous & Nuclear Waste

Waste generation is seen a domestic problem that has acquired global dimensions as countries export their wastes to other countries, especially developing countries. The waste exportation from developed to developing countries that do not have waste regulation and infrastructure caused uproar in international circles in the beginning of the 1980s and led to the adoption of instruments that have imposed regulatory controls or even have banned waste movements.

Waste transfers to other countries, and especially developing countries, were motivated by the high costs of waste disposal in developed countries.  High costs were due mostly to the Not-In-My Backyard (NIMBY) attitude that inhibited the construction of new waste disposal facilities in many developed countries and thus drove up the costs of waste disposal.

Current trends show that waste generation is on the increase.  The biggest waste generators continue to be the United States and member states of the European Union. The amount of wastes traded internationally is increasing steadily.  The main factor that has contributed to this increase in trade is the growth of transbounary waste movements destined for recovery among the member states of the European Union.  Movements of wastes heading for developing countries show large fluctuations over time.  The databases available, however, are still incomplete in terms of the data on waste generated and waste traded  There are still many differences in the national classifications of hazardous waste.  Illegal waste transfers are not included in the data unless an illegal shipment is apprehended.

Two international instruments have been adopted to regulate the transboundary movements of waste.  The Basel Convention and the Bamako Convention.  In addition, a number of guidelines have been adopted at the regional level, such as those adopted by the Organizational for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and a regulation by the European Union that attempts to regulate and curb waste movements.

The Basel Convention on  the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes establishes prior notification and informed consent for the movements of waste.  The exporting state or waste generator must notify in writing the  importing country and other concerned states.  The importing state must respond in writing and consent to, refuse, or require additional information for the waste transfer.  Wastes transferred without this procedure being followed are considered illegal.

The Bamako Convention was adopted  by Organization of African Unity (OAU).  African countries were enraged by the unauthorized tranfers of wastes into their territory.  According to the Bamako Convention, waste movements into the African region are illegal and a criminal act.  With regard to the waste movements within the African region the convention establishes the prior notification and informed consent procedure (provided for also in the Basel convention) and waste exports from the African region to third countries are not prohibited.
Nuclear Energy

Nuclear energy has been an ambivalent form of energy because of the large amounts of radioactive waste generated and for which a mode of permanent disposal has yet to be found in most countries and because the peaceful use of nuclear energy could be diverted for the making of nuclear weapons.

Today there is a renewed interest in the use of nuclear energy because it is a clean form energy in comparison with fossil fuels that have been considered responsible for climate change.  However, three issues loom over the use of nuclear  power:
–One of the them has to do with the disposal or further treatment of high level nuclear wastes generated by the industry that remain active for million of years and, thus, will affect future generations.
—Another issue concerns the possible diversion of the peaceful uses of nuclear energy for the production of nuclear weapons.  This is an issue that is at the heart of recent dispute between the United States and Iran.
—A yet another issue pertains to the safety of nuclear power and the fears of serious accidents in nuclear powered facilities.  No matter the claims about the safety of today’s nuclear power reactors the public’s conscience has been scarred by nuclear accidents such as the Chernobyl and the Three Mile Island Accident.

The disposal of radioactive waste is an issue of concern because, first, there is disagreement of what constitutes radioactive waste.  Some claim that spent fuel produced in nuclear power facilities should be treated as waste and should be buried permanently in deep underground repositories.  Others claim that spent fuel could be reprocessed and reused. The problem with preprocessing,though, is that its byproduct is plutonium that can be used for the production of nuclear weapons.

Furthermore, in terms of disposal of radioactive waste, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has argued for  permanent underground disposal in order to ensure that wastes  will be buried permanently.  Others prefer that wastes be disposed of on-the-ground facilities so that they can be monitored.  Given the long life of high-level radioactive wastes, however, this option puts an excessive burden on future generations in case the institutional controls fail, something that cannot be foreseen today given the millions of years life-span of nuclear wastes.

Overall the burial of radioactive wastes has created controversy and, in most countries, the location of repositories for a permanent burial of radioactive wastes has been the source of public opposition. In 1990, the IAEA adopted guidelines for the transfers of nuclear wastes for which no use is foreseen — not for spent fuel that is destined for re-processing.  Further the Convention on the Safety of Spent Fuel Management and on the Safety of Radioactive Waste Management entered into force in 2001.  The convention clearly specifies that the prime responsibility for the safety of spent fuel or radioactive waste rests with the holder of the relevant license.  If such license is not available, the state, within the jurisdiction of which spent fuel or radioactive waste management takes  place, must be responsible.