«IAEA-TECDOC-1553 Low and Intermediate Level Waste Repositories: Socioeconomic Aspects and Public Involvement Proceedings of a workshop held in ...»
Since its creation in 1950, the National Atomic Energy Commission of Argentina has worked on the development of applications for the peaceful use of nuclear energy. They have included, among others, research and development activities in basic and nuclear technology areas, the operation of important facilities working on the production of radioisotopes for medical and industrial applications and the performance of tasks in connection with the nuclear fuel cycle, mining and uranium processing activities, manufacturing of fuel elements, production of heavy water and the operation of two nuclear power plants. At the appropriate time demonstrative reprocessing programmes were performed.
As a result of such activities and of other activities performed in the nuclear field by other private and public entities, various types of radioactive waste have been and are produced.
Since the early sixties the NAEC through the Safety and Radiological Protection Department has implemented a programme of safe management of such wastes and started the radioecological studies associated with release of radionuclides into the environment. These studies yielded the necessary basic experience to develop criteria and models to be used in environmental assessments.
A site located in the Ezeiza Atomic Center was selected to fulfil some of the main activities of the waste management programme.
2. SHORT DESCRIPTION OF THE SITE AND PRESENT SITUATIONEzeiza Radioactive Waste Management Area (EMA) covers an area of 8 ha used for treatment, conditioning and final disposal of low level solid and liquid wastes. In addition, the Area is used for temporary storage of wastes that, for their characteristics, type of radionuclides and activity concentration cannot be disposed of in the EMA and are waiting for the construction of an appropriate repository. In this area, used sealed sources, as well as spent fuels from the RA 3 Research and Radioisotopes Production Reactor, are also stored.
The main disposal systems are two trenches for disposal of low level solid radioactive wastes, three ionic exchange beds for low level and very short half-life liquid radioactive wastes, and two underground deep silos for structural radioactive wastes and sealed sources.
In view of the design characteristics and the Operating License ruling the EMA final disposal facilities since 1995, only conditioned wastes considered low level wastes requiring isolation periods of up to 50 years were subjected to final disposal since then.
The location of these facilities in the EMA site is shown in Figure 1.
Fig. 1. Ezeiza Radioactive Waste Management Area: different disposal facilities.
The wastes that were disposed of before 1995 are considered historic wastes and the source term must be carefully evaluated. In addition the design of the disposal systems corresponds to the state of the art of the beginning of the 70’s decade. Most of these systems had been in operation for thirty years by 2001.
These facts combined with meteorological phenomena as more frequent heavy rains that modified the groundwater level, have induced to reassess the impact that such facilities could have on the environment and nearby population. The safety re-assessment was initiated in 2001 and at the same time the operation of all disposal systems was suspended.
Societal aspects, that will be described in a separate section, were taken into account too because since some years ago there is an important public concern in the local community in relation to this repository. This complex situation was evaluated by the NAEC and it was decided not to continue with the disposal of wastes in the EMA independently from the final results of the safety reassessment.
For these reasons studies for the characterization of the site and surrounding areas were started in order to reassess the area safety, to maintain an appropriate radiological and environmental surveillance and to decide on future actions.
These studies are included in a project formally initiated in January 2003, with the technical assistance of the United States Department of Energy expertise through the Agreement for Scientific and Technical Cooperation between the National Atomic Energy Commission of Argentina (NAEC) and the USDOE.
It is worth mentioning that demographic, social, economic evolution studies on the surroundings of the EMA site are being carried out.
All this information will be used to complete the safety reassessment of the EMA and then it will be presented to the Nuclear Regulatory Authority for evaluation and decision of future actions.
The different alternatives cover a wide range of options, taking into account the present state
of the evaluation:
⎯ the definite closure of the disposal facilities and initiation of institutional control;
⎯ upgrading to comply with additional remediation requirements;
⎯ removal of historical buried wastes in cases where they cannot be properly isolated with additional engineering barriers;
⎯ implementation of a long term stewardship programme to maintain the control of the site above a 50 years period, in case the permanence of the alpha contaminated buried wastes or residual contamination in groundwater or soil after clean-up activities may represent a risk for public.
3. SOCIOECONOMIC ISSUES The EMA site is located in a national government property that was transferred to the NAEC in 1954. It is adjacent to the International Airport of Ezeiza. This zone is known as “Ezeiza Forests”.
The urban planning code designated the zone for recreational and low-density residential use, but respecting the specific use made by the NAEC and by the Airport of their respective territories.
Demographic, social, economic evolution studies were initiated this year in order to get enough information to evaluate the impact of the repository till now, and to predict the evolution of the zone and the future influence of the population in the decision making process related with the stewardship programme after closure and to plan the land use according to the restrictions or conditions for the free release of the site, if this situation is possible.
In the future, when deciding on land-use restrictions at the EMA site, it will be necessary to register them in the Property Register of the Province of Buenos Aires. The final destination of this site will have to be discussed and negotiated with all stakeholders, trying to satisfy reasonable demands. It is expected that the public participation programme will make an important contribution to a successful and reasonable conclusion on the land-use.
The present studies are being conducted by a consultant group for qualified professionals in the fields of Sociology, Economy and Statistics. They are analyzing data collected from a zone of 10 km around the EMA site, it means an area of 314 km2. The data was mainly obtained from the national surveys made in 1991 and 2001 as well as from some specific polls. The first stage of the studies is oriented to have a diagnosis of the actual situation.
Some of the most relevant conclusions are related in this document.
Some small lands near the EMA site are being used with agriculture purposes. Others are dedicated to clubs or sport centres for recreational activities. An Air Force Base and a State Prison are also located in the surrounding area.
Thanks to the urban planning code that designated the zone for recreational and low-density residential use, the demographic growth near the EMA was relatively low. Only some new private neighbourhoods were located with very low population density, as well as a few very poor isolated houses on federal properties near rivers, roads, or railways. The period between 1991 and 2001 shows a demographic growth of 30%.
An adequate infrastructure for provision of drinkable water and sewage system is not available in the zone. Only the Ezeiza Atomic Center, where the EMA is located, has a sewage treatment plant. Most of the population consumes water from the Puelche aquifer that is about 40 metres average depth.
Urban population is located some kilometres away from the EMA, and upstream in the Puelche flow direction. Most of this population has neither drinkable water nor sewage services, so they are contributing to the pollution of the underground water.
Downstream of the EMA site the land belongs to the national government (NAEC), and a small river behaves as a natural barrier for potential underground water contamination according to the results of the hydro-geological studies performed this year as part of the environmental characterization project.
There is not enough registered data to link the causes of death and disease in relation with the impact of environmental contaminants in public health. It is planned to perform a specific study in the future. Prospective analysis based on the whole relevant data must still be done as a second stage of the socioeconomic studies.
4. PUBLIC INVOLVEMENT PRACTICES
At the beginning of the 70’s decade when the EMA site was developed, it was not necessary to have social consensus for the location of a repository. The radioactive waste management activities were seen as the normal consequence of the nuclear programme and the EMA site was a common part of the Ezeiza Atomic Center that was created in the middle of the 50’s decade. Public opinion in general supported nuclear energy and its applications.
Chernobyl nuclear accident (April 1986) triggered a worldwide sort of radiophobia, which generated distrust, and which was generalized to all nuclear activity by some nongovernmental organizations (NGO’s), initiating an international anti-nuclear movement.
Since then, the public close to the EMA site began to be influenced by some environmental groups and NGOs. There is a real public concern about the Atomic Center activities and especially about the low level waste repository environmental impact. Even with significant educational efforts in schools, civilian associations, municipality, participating in debates and round tables, inviting people to visit the Ezeiza Atomic Center, it is not enough to clear the suspicion of general public influenced by antinuclear groups through mass media.
Lately some antinuclear groups convinced most of the community that the water obtained from the Puelche aquifer is not drinkable because of radiological contamination and that the Ezeiza Atomic Center is polluting the aquifer with nitrates.
It is necessary to implement a social communication programme to change the negative public perception on radioactive waste management in order to fulfill the objectives of the stewardship programme. It will be also necessary to establish a Social Forum with representatives of all stakeholders to facilitate a dialogue to clarify the present situation of the EMA site. The decision of closing the disposal systems and the remediation actions that may be applied in the future depends on the conclusions of the safety reassessment. The implementation of this second step will be very sensitive because a very strong controversy is installed in public opinion.
5. CONCLUSIONS Argentina requires a siting for the repository of intermediate level waste. It plans to install the new disposal system for low level waste in the same site.
It is currently mandatory to have a social and political consensus to obtain the corresponding agreements. As in some other countries, the specific National Law # 25.018, (Regimen for the Radioactive Waste Management Generated in Argentina, issued in 1998) states the necessity of presenting a Strategic Plan for the management of radioactive waste generated in the country. This Strategic Plan must be approved by a Law of the National Parliament and include research and development activities as well as the design of a Social Communication Programme to inform the public about the scientific and technological aspects of the radioactive waste management that must be carried out by the National Atomic Energy Commission. It will also report on the direct and indirect benefits or impacts on the communities close to the repository.
The specific National Law states that the location of a new repository must be approved by a Law dictated in the proper province of the location, and that the community must be consulted through the social communication programme. To reach the societal and political approval of a new site for a repository it is necessary to develop a permanent communication link with the national, provincial and municipal representatives together with other opinion leaders such as NGO’s, private companies, schools, professionals, neighbourhood associations etc. It is essential to identify clearly all stakeholders and involve them from the very beginning of the project in order to improve the decision making process.
It is also very important to involve the local community near the EMA site in the future decisions to be taken on this site because it will be the societal example for working towards the acceptance of new sites by other communities. The strategy requires the implementation of a public participation programme that must be carefully developed. This will allow the public to have access to the scope of activities included in the stewardship programme.
The lesson learned is: the social communication activities must be carefully undertaken in order to move forward with the appropriate management of the radioactive wastes generated in our country.