Radioactive waste arises from a variety of human activities, including nuclear power generation and the various stages of the nuclear fuel cycle, as well as from the use of radioactive materials in industry, research, medicine and agriculture. Radioactive waste may also arise after the decommissioning of nuclear installations. All Member States generate radioactive waste to a greater or lesser extent, but the greatest volume comes from nuclear power generation and associated activities. A relatively small amount of radioactive substances is routinely released into the environment in the form of controlled discharges that are authorised by the national regulatory authorities.
As with all radiation sources radioactive waste is also potentially hazardous to the environment and subsequently, public health. It must therefore be carefully managed in order to protect people and the environment. Therefore, the bulk of all radioactive waste must be specially treated, stored and ultimately disposed of in purpose built repositories.
The development and implementation of policy on the safe management of radioactive waste and spent fuel is the responsibility of individual Member States and reflects their historical, scientific and technological development. Policies and practices are based not only on scientific and technical considerations, but also include institutional, socio-political and economic aspects. In the European Union, 21 Member States have established dedicated organisations to manage radioactive waste. These organisations are under the supervision of the national nuclear regulatory authority as for all other nuclear installations. The management of certain types of radioactive waste has reached a mature stage of industrial development, but the establishment of disposal facilities for the higher activity and longer-lived wastes remains the main challenge for the future.