UPDATE 2-Europe plans binding rules for nuclear waste
* Commission wants pan-European waste disposal standards
* Deep storage offers best disposal option, Oettinger says
* Critics say proposal glosses over safety worries
(Adds quotes, detail, background)
By Pete Harrison
BRUSSELS, Nov 3 (Reuters) - Europe's energy chief proposed binding rules forcing utilities to dispose of nuclear waste chiefly by burying it deep underground to reduce the risks of accidents or terrorist sabotage.
The 14 European Union member states using nuclear power currently store the radioactive waste in bunkers or warehouses for decades while it cools down. Crises like Russia's wildfires this summer have highlighted the risks posed by surface storage.
"We think the time is now ripe for a European solution," Oettinger told reporters on Wednesday as he ventured into an area of regulation jealously guarded by national capitals.
"This is just the start," he added. Nuclear power could be poised for a revival as Europe strives to cut climate-warming carbon emissions and gas imports, but public mistrust runs high, with the Chernobyl nuclear accident in 1986 still strong in many Europeans' minds.
Nowhere is the issue more controversial than in Oettinger's homeland, where demonstrators took to the streets of Berlin in September after the government extended the lifespan of Germany's 17 nuclear power stations.
"Safety concerns all citizens and all EU countries, whether they are in favour or against nuclear energy," Oettinger said. "If an accident happens in one country, it can have devastating effects also in others."
International rules for nuclear waste are backed by weak sanctions and carry little legal clout, so EU officials in Brussels plan to give those same rules teeth. <^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^
For a FACTBOX on the technical details of the proposals please double click [ID:nLDE6A21NY] ^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^>
The best option for disposing of spent nuclear fuel is in "deep geological repositories" -- caverns in clay or granite rocks between 100 metres and 700 metres underground that have never yet been commercially tested -- Oettinger's advisers say.
"The vast majority (of experts) agree that you need to have deep storage, in other words at least 300 metres below the Earth's surface," Oettinger said.
Shallow storage using heavily engineered barriers could also be acceptable and operators will be able to choose whether to leave the caverns open for future access or to seal them permanently.
Anti-nuclear campaigners accused the Commission of trying to gloss over serious doubts about the safety of deep disposal.
"Today's proposals... seem to be little more than a cheap public relations exercise: an attempt to create the illusion that the EU is doing something and that the problems of nuclear waste can be solved, thereby providing a veneer of legitimacy to the revival that the nuclear industry continues to hope for," said German green group politician Rebecca Harms.
Industry group Foratom countered that 30 years of research had proved the deep underground technique to be the safest option.
"Some countries, like Sweden, France and Finland are already in the process of developing deep repositories for the final disposal of spent fuel and radioactive waste," said Foratom director-general Santiago San Antonio.
The EU's 143 nuclear plants produce about 50,000 cubic metres (1.77 million cu ft) of radioactive waste each year, Foratom says. About 15 percent of that is high level waste.
The cost of deep disposal would be several times higher than leaving it in a surface bunker, but would still only amount to about 3 or 4 percent of the total cost of generating electricity, the Commission says.
Industry is happy to pick up that bill if that is the price of public acceptance of a nuclear power revival.
The other beneficiaries would be heavy engineering companies building the underground labyrinths to house the waste, and suppliers to national waste management companies such as Andra in France or Covra in the Netherlands.
The rules, if approved by the EU's 27 member governments over the next year, would force national nuclear authorities to draw up disposal plans by 2015, which would then be vetted by Oettinger's team.
Safety standards drawn up by the International Atomic Energy Agency would become legally binding.
Those countries that do not have suitable geology for deep repositories would be able to share the repositories of other EU countries, but waste could never be exported outside the EU.
"The cheap solution of using third countries with lower safety standards ... is out of the question. We want final disposal of our nuclear waste in the member states of the European Union," Oettinger said.
(Additional reporting by Charlie Dunmore, editing by Rex Merrifield and William Hardy)
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