Storage of historical radioactive waste in Olen well controlled

Regional website Belgium

On December 9th 2020, Belgian TV station RTBF published an article that refers to a documentary  the same day on elevated radioactivity levels as measured by Greenpeace at the Umicore site in Olen. Although the RTBF article suggests otherwise, Umicore confirms that the storage of historical radioactive waste near the Olen site is under control and poses no risk to human health or the environment. A proactive and constructive cooperation between FANC, the Municipality of Olen and Umicore is ongoing related to this matter. 

From 1922 until the end of the 1970s, Umicore’s predecessor companies manufactured radium and uranium products in its plant in Olen, Belgium. Until the 1960s radium was the only treatment for cancer. Uranium oxide was used in fuel rods for nuclear power stations.     Since the 1970s there has no longer been any radium production at the Olen site. All radioactive buildings and installations have been dismantled and stored according to the best available techniques and in concertation with the government.   

Radioactive waste resulting from the production process was stored on the plant as specified by the permits. The production plants have since been decontaminated and dismantled, while the storage area for residues has been cleaned up so as to eliminate any possible adverse effect on employees, the surrounding population or the environment.

A study commissioned by the Ministry of Public Health at the beginning of the 1990s and focusing on the close surroundings of the Olen site showed that 'at present there is no danger to public health and the environment'. That assessment still stands today. However, in order to ensure safe handover to future generations, this study did point out that ‘an overall intervention concept for all contamination problems in the area around Umicore in St.-Jozef-Olen was essential’. This led to the establishment of a monitoring committee in 1993 mandated to survey all the radioactive zones outside the factory walls and to work out the most appropriate long-term solution to store the historical radioactive waste.  

Umicore has cleaned up the polluted premises outside the plant in order to make permanent improvements to the existing conditions and effectively protect human beings and the environment in the long term.                                     

A monitoring program by an external radiation expert and periodic reporting to the competent authority are ongoing. This program includes visual inspection to ensure the integrity of the external grass cover, radon emanation measurements, stability measurements and monitoring of groundwater quality. The government confirms that there are no risks to health of employees, local residents or the environment.

Umicore continues to work with the authorities on monitoring and long-term solutions

Since 2009 the Federal and Regional Agencies (FANC, NIRAS and OVAM) have been working with Umicore to find a long-term solution to the storage of historical radioactive waste. Early in 2020, the Federal Government, through FANC and NIRAS, issued a vision document in which a final waste storage destination is proposed to deal once and for all with the historical radioactive legacy at the Olen site. Umicore fully supports the proposed approach and is ready to cooperate. It is therefore a major step forward towards a long-term, sustainable and agreed solution to Olen’s radioactive legacy.                          

The area where RTBF and Greenpeace carried out measurements is well known by FANC and Umicore and has been monitored for many years. The radioactively contaminated zones in that area are well mapped out. Further to the measurements made by Greenpeace, FANC carried out new measurements. FANC was not informed about detailed indication of the place where Greenpeace tested, but this new in-depth inspection showed that the measured values were much lower than the results of the measurements made by Greenpeace. The values as measured by FANC are consistent with values that were already measured there by SCK CEN since 1995. As such it is a well-known zone, but the measurement results show that there is currently no risk to public health and that no further action needs to be taken at present. 

The area where the bespoke measurements took place, just outside the fence of the radioactively contaminated site in Olen is checked by Umicore on a monthly basis and there is also daily supervision by the Umicore employees who manage the adjacent industrial landfill. 

FANC, the municipality of Olen and Umicore will of course continue to monitor the situation.

More information can be found on the FANC website. 

 

Abbreviations used

  • FANC: Federal Agency for Nuclear Control
  • NIRAS: National Agency for Radioactive Waste and Enriched Fissile Materials
  • OVAM: Public Waste Agency for the Flemish Region
  • SCK CEN: Study Centre for Nuclear Energy

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