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Last Updated: Thursday, 27 April 2006, 19:34 GMT 20:34 UK
Time for action on nuclear waste
By Richard Black
Environment Correspondent, BBC News website

Spent nuclear fuel in a cooling pond at Sellafield, UK
We have a 50-year history in this country of not finding any long-term management option for very high-level, relatively dangerous radioactive waste
Gordon McKerron, CoRWM chair
"We are convinced that government will need to act with all due speed and urgency, because the problem has been hanging around for too long."

Gordon McKerron, chair of the Committee on Radioactive Waste Management (CoRWM), could not have been clearer in his message to government as CoRWM released its draft recommendations on how to deal with Britain's burgeoning nuclear waste stockpile at a meeting in Brighton.

It is an issue which administration after administration has either ducked, or failed to push through.

As Professor McKerron put it, "we have a 50-year history in this country of not finding any long-term management option for very high-level, relatively dangerous radioactive waste."

The resulting situation, which sees waste stored in various forms on a multiplicity of sites, is one which almost every informed observer from academia, industry and the environmental movement finds unacceptable; and one which CoRWM was set up three years ago to help resolve.

Where waste is produced and stored around the UK

It has been exhaustive in its trawl of global scientific expertise, and has taken discussions into the public domain with openness unprecedented in Britain's notoriously secretive nuclear history.

So following the release of its draft recommendations, are we any nearer to knowing when the first batch of "high-level, relatively dangerous radioactive waste" will be consigned to its final resting place?

Not really; though we do have, assuming the government follows CoRWM's advice, a clearer idea of what the final resting place might look like.

Twin track

It will be a deep hole in the ground, at least 500m (1,640ft) below the surface. There would probably be a few sites, though where they might be and whether they would be sealed or left accessible is an open issue.

But there will also need to be "robust interim facilities" which would store material before it was sent for disposal. These facilities would need a lifetime of about a century.

Much of Britain's waste is stored at the Sellafield site

The clearest recommendation comes on the social side, where CoRWM is in no doubt that the old approach - find a disposal site and tell people living nearby they are going to have to lump it - must be consigned to the disposal bin of history.

Public resistance was the key factor in the abandonment of proposals for deep disposal conceived in the 1980s by the Conservative government and the company Nirex.

"We believe there must be a willingness on the part of communities to participate," commented Andrew Blowers, a CoRWM member and Open University social scientist.

"Indeed, the basis of participation can only be that those communities get an enhancement of their well-being.

"It is the complete obverse of the decide-announce-defend strategy which has been tried before and failed."

We have been struck by how those who already deal in this business are not scared of it
Fiona Walthall, CoRWM member
This approach would see communities actively choosing to host disposal or storage facilities in return for some as yet unspecified reward.

But would any communities make that conscious choice to put highly radioactive material beneath their feet, compromising house prices, raising fears of water contamination and terrorist attack?

In CoRWM's consultations around the UK, hinted Fiona Walthall, there have been signs that some just might. "We have been struck by how those who already deal in this business are not scared of it," she said.

Long stretch

There are other important stakeholders who will want an ongoing say as the years go by, not least the companies who will presumably operate disposal and storage facilities and the regulatory body which will oversee the process, whatever that body may turn out to be.

On the political side, commitment will have to be far-sighted and far-reaching, because this is clearly an issue which stretches well beyond conventional political timelines; identifying sites for deep disposal and interim storage would only be the beginning of the end.

Only about one-fifth of the estimated 470,000 cubic metres of the waste which will result from Britain's existing nuclear power, research and military programmes already exists as waste; the rest is tied up in the fabric of nuclear installations as spent fuel, reactor vessels, contaminated structures, and such like.

Bradwell, Essex
Potton Island, Essex
Two sites at Sellafield, Cumbria
Dounreay, Caithness
Altnabreac, Caithness
Fuday, Hebrides
Sandray, Hebrides
Killingholme, South Humberside
Stanford, Norfolk
Offshore site near Redcar
Offshore site near Hunterston
It will take decades to emerge, as reactors and other facilities are decommissioned.

Some of the material will then have to be stored for further decades while it cools down and loses its most intense radioactivity; hence the need for interim storage facilities enduring for a century.

Meanwhile, the geology of any proposed disposal site would have to be studied to ensure it will provide robust containment.

Consultations will have to continue between industry operators, regulators and communities without any parties pulling out of the deal.

Even as all that is going on, further decisions will have to be made, some of which come with major ethical and economic considerations.

Should the repository be locked off or left open? Should spent fuel rods be reprocessed to remove fissile uranium and plutonium? When does it become acceptable to cart large quantities of waste around the country?

And at any stage, the waste management issue can become entangled - as it is just now - with the thornier question of building new nuclear facilities.

No quick fix

CoRWM acknowledges that other countries are moving faster. Finland is heading for a mere 20-year gap between deciding on deep disposal and seeing the first canisters buried.

Deep nuclear storage facility (Posiva)

But Britain, the committee maintains, is different; the geology is more complex, the waste more varied, and the social questions more difficult.

If everything went without a hitch, it believes the first batch of waste could find its way into deep disposal sites within a few decades.

The last delivery would almost certainly be made in the early years of the 22nd Century.

The problem and the solution are daunting in their scale and duration.

In fact, what the CoRWM process has demonstrated most clearly is that there is no single solution and no quick fix.

The committee will now take its draft recommendations for further discussion, presenting them finally to government in early July.

Then, it hopes, government will finally grasp the nettle bequeathed by previous administrations and take some concrete first steps towards the century-long solution.

Given the size of the task and the political challenges, there must be a danger that it chooses the path of least short-term risk and, like its predecessors, does nothing; in which case the entire CoRWM process will have been a waste of time and money.

"We're not asking them to do it tomorrow," said Gordon McKerron. "But certainly we hope at the beginning of July, government will endorse our recommendations and start moving with much greater speed than it has in the past."

Deep disposal of nuclear waste (BBC)


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