The anticipated doubling of world demand for electricity over the next fifty years requires that the gift of nuclear energy that has served developed nations over the past half century must not be abandoned. However, the absence of a clear and unequivocal policy regarding the storage and disposal of radioactive waste is seen by a significant section of the public as a threat to their rights and the non-existence of dedicated regulation of radioactive waste based on law has become an obstacle to the development of nuclear energy in Europe and the USA. A European survey of public opinion carried out at the request of the European Commission revealed that three-quarters of the respondents to sixteen thousand interviews believed that ‘all radioactive waste is very dangerous’. The public perception of threat has been fostered by the general lack of appreciation of the cautious system of radiation protection that has evolved from scientific observation and prediction of the risk of cancer from exposure to low level radiation. The concept of collective dose based on the system of radiation protection and applied to accident scenarios with remote possibilities, but in the absence of scientific assessment of the balance afforded by the pragmatism that man applies to everyday risks including the risk of cancer from the ever-present background of natural radiation, has added a measure of dread to the public sense of threat. That dread has been exacerbated by the emergence since September 2001 of the possibility of the use of radioactive waste as a terrorist weapon and for radioactive waste storage facilities to be seen as terrorist targets. International policy has moved from the comprehensive coverage of nuclear regulation with radioactive waste as an integral, but minor player, in the nuclear energy process to particular consideration with radioactive waste requiring specific regulation. This paper identifies the vectors that determine the direction of the policy governing radioactive waste, the moves toward consolidation of international policy separate from the body of existing nuclear law and future direction that will clear the way for a sustained, appropriate use of nuclear energy.

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