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Last Updated: Monday, 31 July 2006, 14:03 GMT 15:03 UK
'Speed needed' on nuclear waste
By Mark Kinver
Science and nature reporter, BBC News

Sellafield (BBC)
Much of Britain's waste is stored at the Sellafield site
It is now "time to get on with the job" of burying the UK's radioactive waste deep underground, a nuclear advisory group has said in its final report.

The Committee on Radioactive Waste Management (CoRWM) urged ministers to create quickly a body to oversee the process of identifying suitable sites.

Because building disposal facilities would take decades, CoRWM said current storage methods also needed reviewing.

The report is the culmination of a 30-month study into the issue.

CoRWM's chairman, Gordon MacKerron, said the report provided a realistic roadmap for the problem of tackling the UK's growing radioactive waste.

It is important that the government should review current storage arrangements to check that they are going to work within the context of our recommendations
Prof Gordon MacKerron

"We have about 30 years' worth of not managing the long-term problem of radioactive waste at all satisfactorily," he told reporters at a briefing in central London.

"Although it will take several decades... we think we have now set a direction that government can follow and where there will be at least sufficient public confidence to move ahead.

"Early action is important. We think the government should build on the momentum that we believe we have helped to create."

The committee's recommendations were broadly welcomed by the scientific community.

"Geological disposal, including boreholes, of immobilised waste is the correct solution for radioactive waste," said John Roberts, from University of Sheffield's Department of Engineering Materials.

"It is important that the government now heed the recommendations [and] progress without delay."

Spent nuclear fuel in a cooling pond at Sellafield, UK (BNFL)
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
However, David Ball, of Middlesex University, who resigned from the committee, said its findings were based on opinions rather than sound science.

"The CoRWM experience has been the antithesis of good decision making, having been infused throughout with political, commercial and self interests," he claimed.

He added that the findings would be fair game for cries of "foul play" from its detractors.

Greenpeace said the report was likely to be used by the pro-nuclear lobby to push for new nuclear power plants.

"It seems inevitable that CoRWM's 'solution' will be part of the justification for building a new generation of nuclear reactors that create yet more radioactive waste," a statement by the environmental group said.

The committee rejected this view, saying the idea of building new reactors was not on the political agenda in 2003 when they began their study.

'Integrated package'

The committee's key recommendations include:

  • In the long term, "geological disposal" is the most suitable option
  • The need for "robust interim storage" because the process of identifying and building such a disposal facility may take "several decades"
  • The immediate creation of an "oversight body" to begin implementing the committee's recommendations
  • An "equal partnership between government and potential host communities"
Professor MacKerron said the committee viewed its findings as an integrated package and did not want individual points to be "cherry picked".

"It is vital that government no longer tries to impose radioactive waste management facilities on communities because we have about 30 years of experience of that and we know it never works; it always runs into the sand," he said.

Deep nuclear storage facility (Posiva)

"Instead, we are proposing there should be an approach in which communities are invited to be 'willing to participate'".

Professor MacKerron described it as: "A partnership approach in which the implementing body and the local community can negotiate on equal terms.

"Communities would have the right to withdraw from that process up to a pre-determined point."

Any communities interested in hosting a site for deep geological storage would have to be willing to accept a long-term commitment, the committee warned.

At best, the site would not be ready to accept its first consignment of radioactive waste for at least 35 years, and would continue to receive waste for a further 65 years.

The committee estimated that it would cost 10bn to build a deep burial facility, but warned that this figure was likely to rise.

Another additional cost could come from interim storage of the waste while the repository was constructed, Professor MacKerron added.

"Historically, we have always managed [temporary] storage as if it only has to last for the next 20 or 30 years. We are saying that storage may have to last for 100 years or more.

"Existing storage arrangements may or may not be satisfactory but... we think it is important that the government should review current storage arrangements to check that they are going to work within the context of our recommendations," he said.

CoRWM's final report marks the completion of a two-and-a-half year study, on behalf of the government, into the issue of dealing with the nation's radioactive waste.

In April, it published an interim recommendation that the best long-term solution for the disposal of the material was to bury it deep in the ground, but the committee was not asked to identify places in the UK where disposal would occur.

Deep disposal of nuclear waste (BBC)

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