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Last Updated: Monday, 4 April, 2005, 12:00 GMT 13:00 UK
Warning on nuclear waste disposal
Storage containers for vitrified waste     Image: BNFL
There will be further consultations on the nuclear waste question
Proposals to send Britain's nuclear waste into space or to the bottom of the sea are impractical, a government advisory committee has warned.

The Committee on Radioactive Waste Management (CoRWM) recommends waste be either buried underground or stored temporarily in facilities above ground.

Nuclear power plants and weapons have left the UK with a radioactive legacy which presently has nowhere to go.

There will be yet more waste when nuclear stations are decommissioned.

Locations undecided

The committee has consulted experts and the public over the past 18 months, and has come up with four options which it considers viable.

They are: deep disposal, phased deep disposal, shallow burial of short-lived waste and interim storage.

  • Deep disposal is the process of permanently burying the waste between 300m (980ft) and 2km (1.2 miles) underground in an area of suitable geology; where the rocks act as a protective chamber.
  • Phased deep disposal is the same process except the waste will be retrievable.
  • Shallow burial of short-lived waste refers to burying waste that is radioactive only for a short time just below the surface.
  • Interim storage is a temporary management solution. Waste could be stored above the ground or just below the surface but it must be outside the biosphere.
There is no recommendation on where the sites should be located.

Alternatively, the waste could be put in secure storage above ground until better technologies become available.

These options will now go for further consultation.

But the committee excluded from its shortlist blasting waste into space, storing it on ice sheets or below the sea.

The total volume of nuclear waste in the UK is 470,000 cubic metres when conditioned and packaged - enough to fill the Albert Hall five times over.

This includes waste that will arise in the next 100 years from existing nuclear power stations and their decomissioning.

Debate re-opened

The final CoRWM report will be submitted next summer to the UK government, as well as authorities in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Committee chairman Gordon MacKerron commented: "We want to listen to everyone's thoughts - be they members of the public, environmental groups, local authorities, waste managers or regulators.

Nuclear waste barrel at a depth of 103 metres in the English Channel     Image: PA/Greenpeace/Gavin Newman
Barrels of nuclear waste were tipped into the sea in the 1950s and 60s

"Now we can start to focus on the best options and see which will work and which won't."

However, Friends of the Earth warned against making an irreversible decision on nuclear disposal.

Campaigner Roger Higman said: "The simple, most important thing we have been calling for is for whatever we do to be retrievable and reversible.

"The most radioactive waste is going to be high level in a thousand years' time so whatever happens, we have got a problem.

High-level waste - 2,000 cubic metres
Intermediate-level waste - 350,000 cubic metres
Low-level waste - 30,000 cubic metres
Spent fuel - 10,000 cubic metres
Plutonium - 4,300 cubic metres
Uranium - 75,000 cubic metres

"There is no safe way of disposing of nuclear waste and one of the most important lessons is not to create any more, which means we should not have nuclear power plants."

Nuclear waste comes from the process used to generate electricity via nuclear power, from making and maintaining nuclear weapons, and using nuclear technology in hospitals, laboratories and industry.

A recent study found that, on average, people in Britain live about 42km (26 miles) away from one of more than 30 radioactive waste sites, including power plants and military bases, in the UK.

An existing site at Drigg, in Cumbria, for example, allows only for the disposal of low-level radioactive waste.

Some scientists question the need for CoRWM at all.

They say it is simply re-opening a debate which Britain has already been through, and which they believe many other countries have successfully resolved.

Nuclear waste disposal methods being considered

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