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Last Updated: Thursday, 8 July, 2004, 16:13 GMT 17:13 UK
Still no fix on nuclear waste

By Rob Broomby
BBC News correspondent

Aerial view of the Sellafield site
Sellafield contains almost all Britain's nuclear waste
Ninety-eight percent of Britain's most deadly radioactive waste is still sitting at the Sellafield nuclear site in Cumbria, much of it left over from the early nuclear power and weapons programmes.

It hosts well over half of the nation's intermediate level waste too, enough to fill over 1,000 double decker buses. It is all part of Britain's nuclear waste legacy; a problem which still has no solution.

A permanent fix could still be decades away and with the threat of terrorism adding to the danger, the problem is pressing. Some of the Sellafield waste stores, such as the B30 and the B38, fall well short of modern standards.

On my trip to the site I was prevented from entering the B30 itself. It is an open pond containing radioactive waste and is so dangerous that access is strictly limited. Some areas of the facility workers are allowed in for just minutes per day.

Decades of decay

It is an open pond containing radioactive waste ... workers are allowed in for just minutes a day
The B38, which I did see, is a huge concrete tank crammed with highly radioactive waste. Much of it is the shavings from old Magnox nuclear fuel casings that have been corroding there since the 1960s.

It has been giving off hydrogen ever since and now requires constant ventilation.

Byron Smith, head of silo decommissioning at Sellafield, says: "The waste does decay over time but we have the technology to recover that waste and safely treat it. Hydrogen is potentially explosive if you allow enough of it to accumulate."

But he said he was confident the ventilation systems were sufficient to deal with the problem.

The Department of Trade and Industry puts the bill for managing Britain's nuclear waste at over 47bn over the coming years. After that the waste has to be held safely for centuries.

The government hopes its new Committee on Radioactive Waste Management (CoRWM) can find a solution the public will accept. It has until 2006 to report.

Inside the Sellafield plant
The CoRWM is reviewing waste disposal
At this stage even the wildest ideas are still being discussed, from disposal in space, which is viewed as very dangerous and costly, through to disposal in the ice sheets. The less likely options are sure to be eliminated very soon.

The last plan for a deep nuclear repository, run by Nirex, fell apart acrimoniously in 1997. The task now is to avoid 'nimbyism' and provide a solution the public will accept.


CoRWM chairman Gordon MacKerron says in the past politicians and scientists decided what they thought was the best option - and then tried to persuade people. He says the committee is now consulting people from the very beginning and holding meetings in public.

In a bid to reach a consensus, an unusually broad committee has been pulled together, some of whom have opposed each other for years.

One member is Peter Wilkinson, co-founder of Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth. Next to him is Mark Dutton, a man involved in the design of every nuclear power station in Britain since the 1960s. "Pete and I get on like a house on fire," Mr Dutton said.

There's waste there from the end of the last war. It's long overdue that we deal with this
Chris Murray, waste company Nirex managing director
For CoRWM member Professor Andrew Blowers, the terror attacks of 11 September 2001 makes safety paramount. "If you go for surface storage will that be secure?" he asked. But Mr Mackerron says the day-to-day terrorism threat is not their concern.

While the committee talks, the waste is still sitting at Sellafield. At the B30 waste pond, impact protection is negligible and a permanent waste facility will not be ready for at least another 25 years.

The main choices now are between surface storage or underground disposal, and whether the waste should be dumped for good or monitored and open to retrieval by future generations who may have better ideas.

The committee is likely to come under intensive pressure towards the end of its deliberations to name possible sites for a waste repository, if that is the chosen option.


Protesters outside the Sellafield site
Sellafield has long been targeted by protesters
Sellafield remains a likely site because the waste is already there, but there are over 30 other locations holding waste across the country. Community resistance can be expected at any site that was to be chosen.

The controversial nuclear waste company Nirex is likely to build and run the facility. Its managing director, Chris Murray, says the current situation is a national disgrace. "There's waste there from the end of the last [world] war. It's long overdue that we deal with this," he said.

Nirex is now independent from the nuclear industry. Mr Murray says that makes it more objective and means it deserves public confidence.

"People doing this job needed to listen more carefully to local communities," he said. But why should local people trust them? "They shouldn't trust us, that's one of the lessons. They should hold us accountable," he said.

This is not a pro- or anti-nuclear argument. The waste is already there and, for once, all sides are pulling in the same direction. But if nuclear power gains a new lease of life, that fragile consensus could fall apart.

First nuclear site decommissioned
08 Jul 04 |  Oxfordshire
Sellafield firm hit by 303m loss
10 Jun 04 |  Cumbria
Nuclear site terror risks raised
26 May 04 |  Cumbria

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