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Nuclear waste: how are sites monitored? 

Marc Ammerich
Marc Ammerich
Expert, Auditor and Consultant in Radiation Protection
Key takeaways
  • In France, all facilities handling nuclear waste must be equipped with a centre of competence with qualified and trained personnel.
  • A radioactive waste processing inspection aims to ensure that regulations are respected and that good practices are put in place. It can also put forward measures for so-called minor improvements.
  • France is one of the strictest EU member states in terms of radioactive waste management.
  • Other types of waste are those from small producers (5% of radioactive waste). Regulations have been put in place so that the National Agency for Radioactive Waste Management (Andra) can deal with this waste.

For any type of inspec­tion of radioac­tive waste treat­ment cen­tres, there are a num­ber of points to check – for exam­ple, how the expo­sure of staff and third par­ties pass­ing through the site is man­aged. Also, inspec­tors look at how radi­o­log­i­cal zon­ing is car­ried out and how com­pli­ance with safe­ty ele­ments is ensured. 

In the past, large instal­la­tions of this type required what are known as com­pe­tent radi­a­tion pro­tec­tion depart­ments. Today, with new reg­u­la­tions, the term has changed slight­ly but the phi­los­o­phy remains the same: all instal­la­tions in which you have nuclear waste (known as basic nuclear instal­la­tions), must have a com­pe­tence cen­tre with qual­i­fied and trained personnel.

Nuclear inspec­tors look at how these cen­tres are organ­ised, that is, their mis­sion and what aspects might be improved. An inspec­tor must remain fac­tu­al when review­ing a site: if we notice some­thing wrong in the way waste is being man­aged on a site, we must say so. Sim­i­lar­ly, if we observe good prac­tices, it is worth­while com­mu­ni­cat­ing on these so that oth­er sites can learn from them.

Three levels of action

There are three lev­els of action we can take fol­low­ing a vis­it. The first is cor­rec­tive action, which is what we request of the site in the case of non-com­pli­ance with reg­u­la­tions – in the form a decree. If a decree is not pre­cise enough, we bring in an addi­tion­al text, often an order or a deci­sion tak­en by the Nuclear Safe­ty Author­i­ty (ASN). If there is ever a devi­a­tion from these texts, we then ask for cor­rec­tive action.

The sec­ond is a request for addi­tion­al infor­ma­tion when we find that the site is not adher­ing to good prac­tices being car­ried out else­where, by oper­a­tors of oth­er sites. In this case, we ask them to change their way of work­ing. The last lev­el is where we make sug­ges­tions for minor improve­ments, obser­va­tions, relat­ed to slight devi­a­tions from reg­u­la­tions or good practice.

Debriefing is important

After a vis­it, there is a debrief­ing, which inspec­tors should always car­ry out. This is the time to put our cards on the table, as it were, and to announce what will be in the fol­low-up let­ter. If an inspec­tion did not go very well and we observed devi­a­tions, we must say so. We should not say that every­thing is fine in the oral feed­back and then send a 10-page report with actions to be tak­en. The fol­low-up report should be in line with the oral debriefing.

France hap­pens to be one of the strictest EU Mem­ber States for when it comes to radioac­tive waste management. 

France hap­pens to be one of the strictest EU Mem­ber States for when it comes to radioac­tive waste man­age­ment. To give you an idea of the phi­los­o­phy we have adopt­ed, an object that has been in a nuclear instal­la­tion in which there is a risk of dis­per­sion or con­t­a­m­i­na­tion can­not be dis­posed of in con­ven­tion­al waste channels.

In con­trast to oth­er EU Mem­ber States, there are no “release thresh­olds”. Ger­many, Bel­gium, and Spain, for exam­ple, apply the EU Direc­tive – val­ues in total bec­querels, or bec­querels per gram (mass activ­i­ty), below which waste can be released into the nor­mal cycle. This is because the activ­i­ty of the radionu­clides in the waste is con­sid­ered to be so low that it has no impact on human health or the envi­ron­ment. That said, this changed on 14th Feb­ru­ary 2022 with the pub­li­ca­tion of two decrees con­cern­ing recov­er­able, but slight­ly con­t­a­m­i­nat­ed, metal­lic materials.

Fol­low­ing a writ­ten report, we issue a fol­low-up let­ter (that is made pub­lic and pub­lished on the ASN web­site) and the recip­i­ent nor­mal­ly has two months to respond and imple­ment our requests. If they choose not to do so, we then send a for­mal notice. If this is ignored, we can sus­pend activ­i­ty on the site (some­thing that does not hap­pen very often, for­tu­nate­ly). The last major event in France of this kind was at the Épinal hos­pi­tal in 2005–2006, where sev­er­al cohorts of patients were over­ex­posed to radioac­tiv­i­ty. Some of these patients died. This sit­u­a­tion did indeed mer­it an inspec­tion, com­plaint, legal action, tri­al, and conviction.

Other waste

In this arti­cle, we have main­ly talked about waste relat­ed to nuclear oper­a­tors, because today this cat­e­go­ry rep­re­sents 95% of the waste in France. But we also have 5% of waste from small pro­duc­ers, which comes from else­where. In par­tic­u­lar, there are all the research insti­tutes that use unsealed sources and liq­uid sources in gen­er­al. These organ­i­sa­tions are oblig­ed to return any tri­tium and car­bon-14 waste which has under­gone peri­ods of radioac­tiv­i­ty of more than 100 days to Andra. While this cat­e­go­ry of waste rep­re­sents a small vol­ume, it does exist.

It should also be not­ed that a cer­tain num­ber of enti­ties in France are autho­rised to use this type of radioac­tive source. This is the case, for exam­ple, at Sanofi Pas­teur, INRA, INSERM and foren­sic sci­ence lab­o­ra­to­ries. In some cas­es, Andra must recu­per­ate the waste pro­duced by these organ­i­sa­tions, even if it is a small vol­ume that is not very radioactive.

Final­ly, there is a more gen­er­al pub­lic cat­e­go­ry: all objects that con­tain radi­um must be recov­ered. Here, we can cite wrist­watch­es and clocks and oth­er small objects that con­tain radioac­tiv­i­ty, either arti­fi­cial or nat­ur­al. We’ve all seen these kinds of objects in flea mar­kets, and we may even have some in our own homes.

Interview by Isabelle Dumé

Contributors

Marc Ammerich

Marc Ammerich

Expert, Auditor and Consultant in Radiation Protection

Marc Ammerich holds a BTS in radiation protection and joined the SPR Saclay in 1981. Following training at the CNAM, he obtained his degree in nuclear physics in November 1988, thanks to the creation of the ICARE calibration bench at the IPSN (which later became the IRSN). After his contract in March 2006, he returned to the CEA as a radiation protection engineer at the DPSN/SSR and then moved to the general and nuclear inspection in November 2008, carrying out audits and internal inspections. During these many years, he has participated in numerous conferences and made many publications. Today, he continues to share his knowledge, in particular as a trainer for numerous entities and as an expert, auditor and advisor.