Improving the safe treatment of hazardous and radioactive waste requires clear decisions and actions

Toomas Mattson | 10/3/2018 | 11:00 AM

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TALLINN, 3 October 2018 – A follow-up audit by the NAO on treating hazardous and radioactive waste shows that the situation has improved in terms of inspecting the businesses’ reports on waste and controlling their waste management practices. As a result, we have a better overview of hazardous waste generation and handling (incl. depositing and storage) in Estonia. However, increase in the amount of hazardous waste awaiting treatment, lack of applications to support data analysis, and management of the state-owned Vaivara hazardous waste treatment centre are causes of concern.

The amount of hazardous waste awaiting treatment has grown as from 2013. This increase is partly due to the fact that the waste accounting system has improved. In 2017, nearly half of hazardous waste that require treatment remained in storage. The pileup of waste on business premises creates the risk that such waste will not be duly deposited or treated or that the treatment costs will be incurred by the government, for example, when the business goes bankrupt. The NAO sees a solution here: enhance monitoring and require a security deposit upon interim storage of waste to encourage waste treatment without undue delay.

Further, the NAO argued that the state-owned Vaivara hazardous waste treatment centre has not been consistently operational and its sustainable management remains problematic. The centre established in 2000 did not accept any hazardous waste for treatment in 2012-2015. The environment suffered from pollution and rental income was forfeited during that period. The government has spent at least three million euros in 2014-2018 to assess and undo the centre’s negative environmental impact and make arrangements so that the centre could resume operation in line with environmental requirements. The money collected from businesses that bring waste to Vaivara for depositing is not sufficient to cover the cost of closing the landfill. Continuous and successful operation of the centre has been impeded by failed public tenders for operators and equipment, the distribution of responsibilities and tasks between the Ministry of the Environment, the Environmental Agency and the private operator, and the lack of available funds in the Agency’s budget. The NAO finds that the Ministry of the Environment should clearly define the objectives of the centre, lay down arrangements for its operation, and determine the fees collected for closing down the landfill in line with the needs.

The government made a fundamental decision in 2016 to establish a final storage for artificial radioactive waste but the Ministry of the Environment has not commenced with the required environmental studies yet. If work is postponed, the technical condition of the former Paldiski nuclear facility could deteriorate and increase potential costs in the future. Therefore, it is essential that studies are launched immediately so that the final storage would be completed by due date - 2040 - and that the reactor sections would be safely processed by 2050.

The NAO notes that the Ministry still lacks a long-term solution for treating waste and residues generated in Estonia that contain naturally occurring radioactive materials (NORM). Over 470 tons of such waste and residues have piled up on business premises since 2004. The Ministry and the Agency have teamed up with businesses to find new solutions for final treatment of radioactive materials. The NAO finds that the national action plan for radioactive waste treatment being renewed by the Ministry should put greater focus on potential solutions for treating NORM waste.

Auditor General Janar Holm commented on the audit results:

“The government area of the Ministry of the Environment includes three government agencies other than the Ministry itself which are more or less involved in environmental monitoring: Environmental Board, Environmental Inspectorate and Environmental Agency. When reading the audit report, challenges related to the distribution of functions between the said entities stick out alongside the fundamental problems in waste management. The report highlights on several occasions the need to improve exchange of information between the Board and the Inspectorate.

Given the circumstances, the NAO fully supports the initiative of the Minister of the Environment to merge the Board and the Inspectorate. We might have suggested this in the course of drafting our report because the auditors felt that unclear responsibilities on institutional level are one the major reasons behind the problems.

Next, the NAO recommends reviewing some functions of the Environmental Agency as it might be reasonable to assign these to the new joint entity or the Ministry. The merger makes managing this sphere more effective, provides for clear responsibilities and - last but not least - reduces the administrative burden for businesses as well as for officials. However, merely consolidating public officials into a single institution is not enough to ensure a qualitative leap. Spending most of the business day on going through data scattered over several databases leaves little time for field inspections. Work processes should be reviewed besides completing the merger.”

Background information
280,000 tons of hazardous waste (excl. oil shale waste) were generated in Estonia in 2017.
The audit did not address hazardous waste related to the oil shale industry (save where such waste were mixed with other hazardous waste).
In 2015, the NAO conducted an audit on „Processing of hazardous and radioactive waste

 

Toomas Mattson
Head of Communication, National Audit Office
+372 640 0777
+372 513 4900
toomas.mattson@riigikontroll.ee
press@riigikontroll.ee
www.riigikontroll.ee

  • Posted: 10/3/2018 11:00 AM
  • Last Update: 10/3/2018 10:53 AM
  • Last Review: 10/3/2018 10:53 AM

Vaivara hazardous waste treatment centre has not been consistently operational and its sustainable management remains problematic.

National Audit Office

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