Work on plans for the construction of a national radioactive waste storage facility is to get under way in the new year.
The Department of the Environment said a steering group would be established shortly to come up with criteria for the design of the facility and the factors that should influence its location.
The move follows pressure from the Radiological Protection Institute of Ireland (RPII) which has concerns about the way radioactive waste is stored in a mix of private and public settings.
Those concerns were heightened when some seven lightning preventers, removed from the roofs of historic buildings, were stolen last September in a burglary at a construction company.
The old-style preventers — which have not been recovered — contain dangerous radioactive material and were due to be sent to Germany for disposal, but in the meantime, were being stored in a metal box marked with radiation warning signs.
Dr Ann McGarry, chief executive of the RPII, said the incident highlighted the importance of having an appropriate waste management facility for radioactive material.
“It is best practice internationally that radioactive waste be stored centrally. From every point of view it makes sense. It’s much better for safety and security that it be in one location.”
Radioactive waste mainly comes from industry, X-rays and radiation therapies, and college research labs — and any waste produced in recent years is subject to a take-back agreement where the supplier takes back the waste for disposal abroad.
But up to 2011, at least 3,300 quantities of radioactive waste produced prior to the take-back provisions were being stored by 63 individual operators at roughly the same number of locations around the country.
A concerted waste reduction scheme, spearheaded by the RPII, has seen a 90% reduction in the volume of such legacy waste since then, with much of it sent abroad for disposal.
There are now just 35 individual quantities held by 11 operators for which no disposal arrangements have been secured. Dr McGarry said these storage facilities had to be inspected regularly by the RPII and the gardaí.
The steering group to develop plans for a central facility will include representatives from the RPII, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of the Environment.
More than 1,700 licences to use radioactive material were held in Ireland last year, mainly by hospitals, dentists, and veterinary practices, according to the RPII’s annual report.
Officers from the institute carried out 165 on-site inspections and four licensees were issued with warnings to improve their safety and security arrangements.
Seven potentially harmful incidents were reported by licensees to the RPII: the most serious involving an engineer who serviced an X-ray machine and repeatedly scanned himself to make sure it was working.
The company was sent a letter of censure for failing to adequately protect the employee.
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