OREANDA-NEWS. Protecting the environment when developing a new nuclear power programme is one of the important issues that nuclear newcomer countries face. Environmental considerations are often key drivers of the public perception and acceptance of a nuclear power project. Most countries considering nuclear power have no or little experience in environmental issues specific to nuclear power programmes, learned participants of the Technical Meeting on the Environmental Impact Assessment Process for Nuclear Power Programmes, held at the IAEA this week.

“Once a Member State makes an informed decision to introduce nuclear power, the IAEA Milestones Approach identifies that a complete assessment of the environmental impact of the proposed nuclear installation be undertaken in accordance with national requirements,” said Mikhail Chudakov, IAEA Deputy Director General and Head of the Department of Nuclear Energy, at the opening of the technical meeting. “This comprehensive methodical approach is a powerful risk-mitigation measure to ensure the successful and safe development of a nuclear power programme.”

Sixty-one participants from 32 Member States, representing both nuclear newcomers and operating countries, discussed the challenges and possible solutions in the environmental impact assessment process for nuclear power plants, radioactive waste storage and disposal facilities, and shared experiences in managing radiological and non-radiological impact assessment activities.

“Integrating environmental management aspects into nuclear power programmes has become standard practice around the world,” said Deidre Herbst, Environmental Manager at Eskom, South Africa’s national electricity utility, who chaired the meeting. “The understanding of the complexity and requirements — for example, considering the impacts of other infrastructure associated with the nuclear power plant, such as access roads, workers' accommodation and transmission lines — continues to expand and change. This creates challenges which could impact the successful implementation of a nuclear programme.”   

Public perception — an important component of an environmental impact assessment

Most countries have regulations that require proponents to consider and evaluate all issues raised by the public and to ensure that the public understands the impact of the project. “The public regard safety as one of the key issues,” stressed Herbst. “Therefore it is prudent, and in some countries obligatory, to assess both radiological and non-radiological issues.” Lessons learnt from existing operators point to the need to be open and transparent and to find ways to share complex messages in a simple format.  It is important to identify key stakeholders from the start of the process and ensure that the engagement is effective, regular and consistent.

The process requires many and varied specialized studies on both radiological issues, such as the potential of radiological releases to the natural environment and their effects on human health, and non-radiological aspects, such as site selection, fauna and flora, marine environment, geohydrology, meteorology, air quality and transport and traffic. They also include socio-economic impacts, climate change impacts and adaptation, visual and aesthetic impacts and effects on cultural heritage sites.  The challenge is to achieve a level of independence in these studies that is acceptable to the public.

Other issues discussed during the meeting focused on integrating environmental management throughout the life cycle of the project and accommodating transboundary concerns from neighbouring countries.  Participants agreed that countries need to identify which authorities will assess and approve the radiological aspects raised during the environmental impact assesment process.  In cases where the environmental authority is mandated to do this, it is critical that this authority works very closely with the nuclear safety authorities to ensure consistency in approach and methodologies.