Exemplary management of historical radioactive waste stored in Olen

Umicore’s Olen site legacy

From 1922 until the end of the 1970s, Umicore’s predecessor companies manufactured radium and uranium products 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 or uranium production at the Olen site. All buildings and installations where radioactive material was processed have been dismantled.   The residues storage area has been cleaned up to eliminate any possible adverse effect on employees, the surrounding population or the environment. 

Some low radioactive residues remain from these past activities and are stored at the Umicore site in Olen using the best available techniques and in concertation with the authorities. These residues cannot be compared in any way to the radioactive waste from nuclear power plants. Waste from nuclear power plants is category C waste (according to the classification of the International Atomic Energy Agency) which is highly radioactive and generates significant heat. Such waste has to be buried at a depth of several hundred meters. The residues present on the Umicore site (essentially category A residues and a small quantity of category B) are of very low radioactivity and are stored according to the guidelines set out by the relevant federal agencies. 

In Olen, Umicore has state-of-the-art storage facilities of industrial residues where there is only a small fraction that is lightly contaminated. Additionally, there is a dedicated facility on site, built in the 80s, to contain radioactive storage for light radioactive materials. Strict inspections are carried out regularly by the competent authorities. 

Long-term solutions

While a study in the 1990s, still applicable today, stated that 'at present there is no danger to public health and the environment', Umicore has sought a long-term solution to maximize safety in the storage of the historical radioactive waste. Umicore has depolluted the premises outside the plant in order to make permanent improvements to the existing conditions and to provide effective long-term protection to human beings and the environment. We continue to work with the authorities on monitoring and on long-term solutions.

Umicore has set in place a monitoring program with an external radiation expert, and periodic reporting to the authorities. 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 has confirmed that there are no risks to the health of employees, local residents or the environment. 

“There is no danger to public health.”

FANC, Federal Agency for Nuclear Control           

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 cooperating with the authorities on planning the next steps in this major step forward towards a long-term, sustainable and agreed solution to Olen’s radioactive legacy.  Working groups comprising representatives of OVAM, NIRAS, FANC and Umicore are being formed to shape this program. 

Open and constructive dialogue

While no further action is needed at present, the ongoing proactive and constructive cooperation between FANC, the Municipality of Olen and Umicore has been publicly confirmed by the neighbors and by the local authorities .

“We have always had an open dialogue with Umicore about radioactivity.”

Seppe Bouquillon, Mayor of Olen, Belgium

The mayor of Olen believes the experts of the Federal Agency for Nuclear Control and Umicore when they say that there is no immediate danger for public health and the environment*.

(Source: Belga)

* Burgemeester van Olen: 'Steeds open overleg gehad met Umicore over radioactiviteit' - België - Knack