Page last updated at 15:01 GMT, Friday, 17 July 2009 16:01 UK

UK nuclear waste strategy in jeopardy

By Rob Broomby
BBC World Service

The UK government's strategy for dealing with deadly nuclear waste is in jeopardy three years after it accepted the idea of disposing of it deep underground.

Sellafield nuclear power plant
Sellafield (pictured) and Dounreay hold much of the UK's nuclear waste

Just two local councils in one region, west Cumbria, have shown any interest in hosting the £13.8bn underground facility.

Thirteen local councils which inquired decided not to go any further, according to a new report being finalised by the Committee on Radioactive Waste Management (CoRWM), which advises the British government.

That raises questions over the policy of "voluntarism" which was designed to prevent a backlash with host communities feeling unfairly picked on.

'Lack of confidence'

Instead of politicians or experts choosing a location, local authorities were instead invited to volunteer to host the deep underground repository where some of the most dangerous materials known to man would be locked safely away from all living things for hundreds, possibly thousands, of years.

But to sweeten the nuclear waste pill there was to be a package of incentives.

Clearly time has been lost
Professor Robert Pickard, CoRWM Chairman

But now there is a "lack of confidence" in the process in some communities, according to the CoRWM chairman, Professor Robert Pickard, and doubts have emerged among some local people about whether future Governments will deliver on promises made today.

The two local councils interested, Copeland and Allerdale, are both on Cumbria's western rim.

Copeland has been in the frame before. It covers the area explored by the now defunct Nirex organisation which conducted test drilling aimed at creating a repository until work was abandoned in 1997.

In the 12 years since, progress has been slow and now Professor Pickard agrees that with just one region interested, the process would be in difficulty if they were to wobble in their commitment in the future. "That's true and there is no way round it," he says.

Onkalo waste facility, Finland
This Finnish site is being built to hold nuclear waste indefinitely

He admits the repository won't be ready before 2040 at the earliest and pessimists believe it could be much later than that.

"Clearly time has been lost," he told the BBC.

"If you started tomorrow it would still take 120 years probably to move legacy waste (the waste from existing and past nuclear programmes) into deep geological disposal."

Question marks

Despite a system which was supposed to allow local authorities to back out if they were unhappy, the latest CoRWM documents suggest that the two local authorities still fear that they could be imposed upon to take the deadly waste against their will if the voluntary approach failed.

The CoRWM committee will call on the British government to restate its commitment to "voluntarism" in an attempt to regain lost trust.

Professor Pickard says the government needs to "clarify the process" to reassure people.

Most of the UK's radioactive waste is split between two broad locations, the sprawling Sellafield site in Cumbria and Dounreay in the far north of Scotland.

But since the Scottish National Party took over the government in Edinburgh, the administration there has gone cold on deep geological disposal and is developing its own distinct strategy, leaving another question mark over the UK plans.


Rob Broomby visits a nuclear repository site in Finland

But in Finland progress is being made. They hope to have their repository site licensed by 2020 and work is already progressing rapidly.

The gaping tunnel mouth at the Onkalo site on the country's Baltic coast leads to a 3km subterranean road network which will eventually spiral down to a depth of 420m to the place where the waste should be stored in principle until the end of the Earth.

Juhani Vira, the vice-president for research for Posiva, the company building the repository, expects his site to take 130 tonnes of used uranium fuel rods for every year of Finland's nuclear programme.

He agrees it is an awesome responsibility but he is convinced that the bedrock "is very stable".

"In geology we talk about time scales of billions of years," he says.

That allows him to predict the stability of the rocks for centuries to come.

'Passive safety'

But what will human societies be doing in hundreds of thousands of years and will they be stable enough to care for this generation's toxic nuclear legacy?

Olkiluoto 3
Olkiluoto 3 will be the biggest nuclear reactor in the world

Because that question can't be answered, he says, the repository must be "safe independent of the actions of future generations".

Finland's design relies on what he calls "passive safety", meaning future civilisations should not need to worry about it.

But he says, if future societies really wanted to they could dig it up if they found a better solution. But he concludes, "there should be no need to".

Onkalo is just miles from the Olkiluoto nuclear power station complex with its two enormous reactors and a third Olkiluoto 3, under construction.

That will be the biggest reactor the world has ever seen but it is way over budget and three years behind schedule.

It is to be hoped Finland's waste repository won't face the same fate.

Even so, construction in Finland is likely to be complete before the UK has even started.

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