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Last Updated: Thursday, 11 August 2005, 11:17 GMT 12:17 UK
Hard decisions of nuclear clean-up
By Richard Black
BBC News environment correspondent

Britain was a pioneer at the start of the nuclear age
It is the issue which just about every politician would like to wish away; but there is no sign yet of any magic wand which can make 10,000 tonnes of radioactive waste simply disappear.

Without one, the government will at some stage, however reluctantly, have to take hard decisions on what to do with the toxic detritus of a 60-year nuclear programme.

Without establishing firm plans for disposing of Britain's nuclear waste and decommissioning the facilities which remain, it is difficult to conceive how the government can open a meaningful debate about any future role of nuclear power.

With signs of an "energy deficit" looming, there is clearly an urgent need for such debate.

'Urgent need'

Britain was a pioneer in the nuclear age, building experimental reactors and other facilities whose waste output was unknown and unknowable at the time of construction.

Accordingly, its piles of waste are significantly higher than those of many other members of the nuclear club; but it has been anything but a pioneer in the process of dealing with its waste.

"Almost 30 years after the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution first drew attention to the urgent need to find a long-term solution to the problem of storing radioactive waste, there is still no strategy for dealing with the United Kingdom's high and intermediate level radioactive waste," thundered the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee in December 2004.

We hope that the government will take a decision fairly rapidly once they've reported, because we do need to have a decision on which way to handle the waste
Sir Anthony Cleaver

Within the last five years the government has shown signs of trying to get to grips with the issue, establishing two bodies with subtly different responsibilities and remits.

One is the Committee on Radioactive Waste Management (CORWM), charged with recommending an overall strategy on waste disposal to the government. It published a shortlist of 'disposal options' in April, and will release its final report next summer.

The other is the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA), which will direct and manage the closing down and cleaning up of 20 sites around the UK, including Sellafield, Dounreay and the eleven Magnox power stations.

It describes its draft strategy, published today, as "ambitious and challenging" - and it is difficult to disagree.

Its key recommendations are:

  • Speeding up drastically the decommissioning of Magnox stations - though the reactors will all have closed by 2010, currently the sites would not be cleared for 125 years. The NDA says that is too long and wants it done in just 25

  • For low-level waste, finding an alternative to the existing facility at Drigg in Cumbria; though the shallow hole at Drigg is far from full, it is anything but far from the coast, and there is a distinct risk of flooding in the coming centuries

  • Finding solutions - as yet unspecified - to the many issues at Sellafield, including the troubled Thorp re-processing plant which is currently closed following a serious leak of radioactive liquid

  • Putting operations at some sites out to competitive tender by 2008

Constrained options?

Over the next three months the NDA will gather reactions from around the country and compile its final document, which should be available before the end of the year.

The ultimate question is of where the toxic waste will be kept

Some of its options may be constrained by what CORWM recommends, and then by what the government chooses to do with its recommendations.

"We hope that the government will take a decision fairly rapidly once they've reported, because we do need to have a decision on which way to handle the waste," the NDA's Chairman Sir Anthony Cleaver told BBC News.

"I think at the moment our view would be that an underground repository is the best solution - that seems to be the one that combines most of the aspects of safety and security in the most effective way."

Skills shortage

Though many in the industry will appreciate the NDA's can-do attitude, there are reservations.

Prospect, the union which represents workers in the nuclear industry, fears that putting management of decommissioning at half of the 20 sites out to competitive tender by end of 2008 could impact on safety.

Prospect also draws attention to a shortage of the skills and expertise needed to decommission these various sites, which the NDA intends to address by establishing a 'nuclear skills academy', probably to be sited in Cumbria.

Ultimately, the key question for the public is likely to be the one which comes after "how should we dispose of the stuff?" - namely, "where should we dispose of the stuff?"

It is a question which politicians would prefer not to exist, but like the waste itself, it can't be wished away.

As one nuclear scientist told me earlier this year: "The issue isn't whether burying waste is an ideal solution, but whether it is more or less dangerous than leaving it where it is" - generally, in temporary storage at the sites where it has been created.

But the location issue is very, very difficult; in 1997 a planning application to build an underground laboratory near Sellafield to research deep disposal was turned down because of local objections.

It is entirely likely that any future proposal would meet with similar objections, preventing a long-term resolution of the issue, and therefore the 'rational debate' on future nuclear power which some voices in the Labour and Conservative parties are calling for.

Bid to speed up nuclear run-down
11 Aug 05 |  Scotland

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