After more than 30 years of RD&D, ONDRAF/ NIRAS, the public agency charged with managing radioactive waste in Belgium, has achieved a high level of scientific and technical confidence in the safety and feasibility of geological disposal of high-level and/or long-lived radioactive waste into poorly-indurated clays. Boom clay and Ypresian clays feature low permeability, strong retention capacity, are plastic, and hydrodynamically and geologically stable; they are the geological formations in Belgium that seem to present the best intrinsic properties to ensure the functions expected of a natural barrier (host rock). Work has been performed according to international recommendations and in cooperation with foreign countries.

A formal policy decision regarding the long-term management of high-level and/or long-lived radioactive waste is, however, still missing. Without such a policy decision, ONDRAF/NIRAS cannot fully perform the tasks it has been legally entrusted with. That is why in 2009 ONDRAF/NIRAS started preparing a waste plan in order to provide the government with all the necessary elements to take such a policy decision (a decision-in-principle). Legally, the waste plan must be accompanied by a Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) that includes a comparison of alternatives, and by a public consultation on a national level (Figure 1).

Before the legal consultation process, ONDRAF/NIRAS launched several initiatives to get a better idea of societal expectations regarding long-term management of radioactive waste and the concerns to be handled in the Waste Plan and its accompanying SEA.
Amongst these initiatives, ONDRAF/NIRAS asked the King Baudouin Foundation (KBF) to organise a participative process in order to gain insight into citizens’ concerns and values to be taken into consideration during decision-making. KBF is an independent and pluralistic public benefit foundation specialized, among others, in participative technology assessment. KBF selected the ‘citizens’ conference’ approach during which it acted as an independent process guarantor and ensured the quality of the debates. During this citizens’ conference ONDRAF/NIRAS was just one out of many other invited experts from very diverse horizons (including NGOs, politics, local authorities, academia). This deliberation process transformed highly diverse initial opinions of participants into broadly accepted common ground and recommendations for ONDRAF/NIRAS.

What the citizens’ conference said

"At the end of 2010, the Belgian government will have all the elements needed to make a ‘decision in principle’ on the way in which we manage high-activity and long-lived radioactive waste in Belgium.

"A citizens’ conference is a structured way of involving citizens or non-specialists in policy choices, and not only taking into account the opinion of experts in this problematic issue. In the present case, the King Baudouin Foundation organised a panel of 32 people, 15 French- and 17 Dutch-speaking (one participant had to give up after the first weekend for health reasons). 6500 online invitations to participate in this citizen conference were sent out. A panel of 32 citizens was selected among the 148 positive responses: men and women of different ages, different walks of life and educational levels, from the city or the country, from virtually every corner of the country. This diversified composition is very important: it ensures that different opinions and views are represented in the group.

"During a citizens’ conference, it is the citizens who speak. We met during three weekends (Hasselt, 14-15 November 2009, La Hulpe, 12-13 December 2009, Brussels, 30-31 January 2010) to gather information and exchange views between ourselves. During the first two weekends of the conference, we explored this complex subject. We first wanted to inform ourselves in depth, in order to later deliver relevant advice. Then we identified the aspects of the subject that we wanted to develop and questions that we wanted to ask the experts. We were not afraid to put our finger on controversial or uncertain issues.

"The third weekend was largely open to the public. On this occasion, we questioned our experts, and we drafted a report that summarizes our opinions, our visions, ideas and a series of policy recommendations relating to this theme."
Recommendations covered topics ranging from reversibility, financing, recycling, international relations and communications. A few examples are below.

Decision in principle — Recommendation 1: "Politicians shall decide, but they do not act alone. In our opinion, it is necessary to establish a commission to oversee this decision. This commission will include, in addition to political representatives, technical experts, specialists of ethics and the population. This committee should be informed as much as possible on other practices that are applied elsewhere in the world. On this basis, it may propose concrete solutions and considerations for parliament and government, which will take the decision-in-principle taking into account all aspects technical, human and organizational.

Security, risks and recycling — Recommendation 6: "Our country must maintain control of risk and of solutions at all stages, because our security cannot depend others (states, corporations …)

National and international context — Recommendation 9: "It is necessary, at the European level, and at the national level, to introduce uniform definitions concerning waste (end-of-cycle) and to complete a European classification and inventory.

Communication — Recommendation 16: "We propose the creation of an independent resource centre that aims to collect, preserve and disseminate information (technical, process) to different audiences: the general public, scientists, industry professionals and politicians."

Communication — Recommendation 19: "An emergency plan should include a communication strategy that ensures a flow of communication that is effective, fast and geographically-appropriate (local, national, international)."

-This document consists of edited and translated extracts of "Conférence citoyenne: ‘Comment décider de la gestion à long terme des déchets radioactifs de haute activité et de longue durée de vie?’" Published by the King Baudouin Foundation, publication 1968, ISBN 978-2-87212-609-5, January 2010.


The legal nationwide SEA consultation yielded about 2800 very diverse reactions. These contained more than 8000 ‘arguments’, most of them outside the remit of the Waste Plan or of ONDRAF/NIRAS’ legal responsibilities. They were obviously not consensual. Several recurrent themes, however, appeared in both the citizens’ conference and the legal consultation:

  • Retrievability of waste for a reasonable period of time, that is, about 100 years after disposal
  • Controllability of the disposal facility (a need to ensure repository monitoring (certainly during the reversibility period)
  • Transfer of knowledge of the repository, its contents, its risks from one generation to another
  • Establishment of a guardian for the decision-making process (independent from ONDRAF/NIRAS and from the safety authorities), a multidisciplinary committee who would guarantee that the decision-making process is transparent, fair, well-informed, participative, and proceeds in a stepwise manner.
  • Follow-up by ONDRAF/NIRAS of the scientific and technical developments regarding long-term management solutions that were analysed in the SEA but disregarded. This includes for example advanced nuclear technologies that could help optimize the disposal solution by reducing the waste thermal output and therefore, the needed disposal surface or by reducing the waste radiotoxicity, and the possibility of a shared repository between two or several countries. One should note that advanced nuclear technologies won’t replace the need for a repository itself.

While finalising its waste plan, ONDRAF/NIRAS embedded the above points as societal conditions in the implementation of the disposal solution proposed. The precise technical, financial and organisational consequences of such conditions will need to be defined in consultation with all stakeholders, once a policy decision has been taken (see also box, The Waste Plan)

The citizens’ conference proved that citizens’ involvement brings added value in the preparation of a policy decision. It defines societal expectations. But it must be carried out by an independent and generally-acknowledged guardian.

The waste plan

The plan was eventually published in September 2011. It considered many possible options for the management of high-level and/or long-lived waste, and narrowed the choice to two strategic alternatives: geological disposal or extended interim storage for 100-300 years, with an expectation of another final solution. In the document, ONDRAF/NIRAS recommended the former, because of the robustness of protection, and the minimization of management burden on future generations; passive safety is also a key advantage. The plan proposes digging horizontal galleries at a depth of several hundred metres in poorly-indurated clay, where waste is disposed, that are then backfilled. Vitrified waste from reprocessing and/or spent fuel (highly-active and heat-emitting, classified in Belgium as category C) is placed in supercontainers, and medium-level waste (classified in Belgium as category B) is placed in concrete caissons and embedded in mortar to form monoliths. The total amount of existing and planned waste by 2070 depends on whether suspended reprocessing is restarted. For a full reprocessing scenario, the total amount of waste consists of about 10,000 to 11,000 m3 of category B waste and 600 m3 of category C waste. If reprocessing is discontinued, the amount of category C waste will be 4500 m³. Assuming full reprocessing of all commercial fuel, its estimate of the non-discounted total repository cost is EUR3 billion (in 2008). An English version of the waste plan is now available for download on

In its formal programme, dated December 2011, the new Belgian government said that it will take a policy decision regarding the long-term management of high-level and/or long-lived waste in the framework of the transposition in the Belgian law of the Council Directive 2011/70/EURATOM of 19 July 2011. That directive establishes a European Community framework for the responsible and safe management of spent fuel and radioactive waste. Such a decision has not yet been taken.
This directive is certainly the most important advancement in the institutional framework regarding radwaste management. In particular it states in its summary that "It is broadly accepted at the technical level that, at this time, deep geological disposal represents the safest and most sustainable option as the end point of the management of high-level waste and spent fuel considered as waste". This supports the overall conclusion of the Waste Plan.

This article is based on a presentation at the International Conference on Geological Repositories, 30 September-3 October 2012, Toronto, Canada by Philippe Lalieux, director, long term management, Belgian Agency for Radioactive Waste, ONDRAF/NIRAS, Avenue des Arts, 14 BE-1210 Brussels