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Last Updated: Monday, 31 July 2006, 13:46 GMT 14:46 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
For over three decades, efforts to find solutions to the problem of long-term radioactive waste management in the UK have failed
CoRWM report
"Now is the time to get on with the job."

Gordon MacKerron, chair of the Committee on Radioactive Waste Management (CoRWM), could not have been clearer in his message to government as CoRWM released its final recommendations on dealing with Britain's nuclear waste stockpile.

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

As the report puts it: "For over three decades, efforts to find solutions to the problem of long-term radioactive waste management in the UK have failed."

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.

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.

Where waste is produced and stored around the UK

Now, it is above all else urging action. Assuming the government accepts CoRWM's recommendations, it should establish a body to oversee implementation "without delay".

"It would have an independent character; it would build on public trust," said Professor MacKerron.

"It will also need to decide, as soon as it can, on which body would do the implementation of radioactive waste facilities, and would begin the process of thinking about how to screen the country for geological unsuitability at least in the first instance.

"Those things at the very least, as well as, in addition, thinking about establishing a better research programme - those are all things I would expect to see before the next general election."

Into the void

So 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.

The basis of participation can only be that those communities get an enhancement of their well-being
Andrew Blowers
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.

Accessibility allows monitoring of canisters for signs of failure. It also means that spent fuel could be retrieved for reprocessing if technological or economic factors made that option desirable.

CoRWM's view is that these advantages are outweighed by the disadvantages: the continuing need for a human presence, which brings health risks and expense; and potential terrorist attack. Facilities should be closed after emplacement of waste, it recommends.

On the technology itself, which would see spent fuel and other waste encased in materials such as steel, copper or carbon and immersed in clay, it has few doubts, though it does note that "further clarity" is needed on the length of time for which containers will remain intact.

Half life

There will also need to be "robust interim facilities" which would store material before it was sent for disposal, CoRWM says. These facilities would need a lifetime of more than a century.

The clearest recommendation comes on the social side, where the committee 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.

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
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," said Andrew Blowers, a CoRWM member and Open University social scientist, when the committee released interim recommendations in April.

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

CoRWM takes no position on the scale or nature of such an "enhancement", though it notes: "In South Korea, communities were offered up to $290m [156m] to allow the implementing body to select a low-level waste repository."

The committee has found signs in its consultations around the UK that some communities might welcome the jobs which continued involvement in the nuclear industry can bring.

Long stretch

The government has welcomed CoRWM's report. But even if it acts with the urgency which Professor MacKerron demands, this is clearly the beginning of a very long process.

Deep nuclear storage facility (Posiva)

To start with, 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.

By definition, this material cannot be disposed of until it has come out of use; even then, some must be left to cool off for decades before processing begins.

Even with the speediest political decisions, the first canisters of waste are unlikely to be buried for 35 years, CoRWM says.

Other countries are moving faster; Finland has already mapped out a pathway and started excavating a likely site. It is heading for a mere 20-year gap between deciding on deep disposal and seeing the first canisters interred.

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

The waste issue has also, inexorably, become linked to the vexed question of whether to build new nuclear reactors in the UK.

The government has said it would not embark on a new round of building until and unless a solution had been found for waste from previous nuclear programmes.

Would acceptance of CoRWM's recommendations constitute a solution?

Pylons. PA

The government's endorsement of the principle of new build in its recent energy review suggests it believes the argument has been settled.

But anti-nuclear groups, which base their arguments largely on the danger of waste and the costs of clean-up, can point to CoRWM's ambivalence on the longevity of containers and its acceptance that disposal facilities will cost at least 10bn.

The nuclear industry seeks to de-link new build from waste with its assertions that technology has changed and that waste from a new generation of reactors would add only 10% to Britain's existing stockpile.

But likely timelines for the two issues coincide; and communities which might accept a disposal facility are also likely to be in areas where enthusiasm for new reactors runs highest.

But pushing ahead with either new build or waste disposal facilities may be hampered by issues other than public acceptance.

Contracts will have to make financial sense to commercial partners; and unions are warning of a skills shortage.

CoRWM has laid down a set of boundaries within which government can act, and a "least-worst" pathway for this most hazardous of issues.

Continued willpower over the lifetimes of many parliaments will be needed to follow the pathway to its logical conclusion, half a kilometre below Britain's surface.

Deep disposal of nuclear waste (BBC)


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