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Institute Director Forces Croatia to Alter Nuclear Waste Plan

25 November 2010 6:15 am
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The Croatian government this week backtracked on a controversial decision to store all of the country's low- and medium-level nuclear waste at a major research institute in the heart of its capital, Zagreb. The plan had been denounced by the director of the facility, the Ruđer Bošković Institute, and on Monday, Croatia's Ministry of Science, Education and Sports issued a statement saying the institute "was not an adequate place to store the waste permanently." But the ministry stills wants to store the nuclear waste at the Zagreb site for an indefinite period until a permanent storage site is readied.

A media campaign against storing the waste in the city started with an article in October by the business publication Poslovni Dnevnik, which revealed political pressure on Danica Ramljak, the institute's director, and her public refusal to sign a contract to accept the waste. The waste storage proposal, according to her, followed years of inaction on the issue. "Sorry, but I have no intention of putting my signature to this 'crap'... For six years no-one did anything to address this issue, and now, when the time is ticking away, I am supposed to sign so the waste can be stored at 'Ruđer'. I wouldn't dream of it," Ramljak, a medical researcher who previously worked at the U.S. National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, and Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., told Jutarnji List in an article published Monday.

Croatian media has reported that the Croatian government decided last December, without any public consultations, to permanently store the country's nuclear waste from research, medical, and industrial sources at the Zagreb institute, which with its more than 1000 employees is among Croatia's largest interdisciplinary research centers. Croatia produces an estimated 1 cubic meter of such waste daily and 80% of it is not stored properly, according to Pavle Kalinić, head of Zagreb's Office of Emergency Management. As Croatia prepares to enter the European Union, the country has agreed to set up a central national nuclear waste repository—the European Commission says all European countries should do so by 2014—and the EU is willing to provide Croatia up to €1.7 million to build such a repository. But the government has apparently long embraced the idea of storing the country's waste at the Zagreb institute; Ramljak says that the Croatian National Institute for Radiation Protection first asked her institute to house a central waste repository in 2006. At that time, the institute refused to do so, but it did agree to temporarily house low- and medium-radiation waste that originated from outside the institute, although its storage facilities were never designed for that. [The institute has its own temporary storage unit for radioactive waste resulting from the research materials at the institute; it is certified by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) for temporary storage, but that institute also needs a long-term storage facility where it could move its current waste.]

Ramljak says the recently offered contract for long-term storage did not ask for a risk and safety analysis to see if the institute's premises are adequate for such storage. Croatian media have noted that the institute is situated in a densely populated and seismically active area, contrary to IAEA recommendations for low- and medium-level nuclear waste storage facilities. The ministry's contract, adds Ramljak, also didn't address issues of how long the waste would be stored at the institute or who would finance the storage. Ramljak says she set up a committee of radioactivity experts at the institute to assess the government's storage proposal. The panel's conclusion was that the danger would increase as more waste accumulates and that the institute's location in Zagreb made it unsuitable for such a purpose. Their recommendation was that any nuclear waste storage contract should only be signed if the government agrees to find a permanent solution elsewhere within 5 years.

The nuclear waste controversy picked up pace late last week. Ramljak said she had requested to speak to the prime minister about the government's plan, but after a month of failed attempts to contact her, the institute director decided to voice her opinions in a press release that openly denounced the government's plans. Croatian media quickly reported that the government was planning to replace Ramljak with someone more willing to accept the waste storage plan, but that hasn't happened yet. Instead, she, Croatia's ministers of science, health, and environmental protection, the nation's deputy prime minister, and the head of the National Institute for Radiological and Nuclear Safety organized and on Monday attended the first public meeting on the issue. After the meeting, the Croatian government released its statement saying the institute was not an adequate long-term solution to the country's nuclear waste problem.

Ramljak seems satisfied for the moment. She told the Croatian media that she insisted on and received a firm, written agreement not to use the institute for permanent storage of nuclear waste.

Mico Tatalovic is a deputy news editor at SciDev.net.

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