Energy fear over nuclear waste dumps

Energy fear over nuclear waste dumps


Former senior government advisers on nuclear power have accused ministers of being ‘cavalier’ and ‘cherry-picking’ their advice to bolster the case for a new generation of nuclear power stations.
They and other industry experts say the government should not embark on building any new atomic facilities without properly tackling the unsolved problem of how to deal with radioactive waste from existing power plants.

In 2006 the Committee on Radioactive Waste Management published recommendations on how the UK should dispose of nuclear waste. A key idea was that long-term disposal would be best carried out by identifying suitable sites at which the waste could be buried, a process called deep geological disposal.
The conclusions were used by the government to bolster the case for the building of new nuclear power stations. But Gordon MacKerron, chair of the committee until 2007, said the recommendations were meant for legacy waste and were not a ‘carte blanche’ to think that radioactive waste from a new generation of power plants could be dealt with in the same way.

“Although the government was getting more enthusiastic about nuclear power in July 2006, it wasn’t as concrete about it as it has since become. My main quarrel is not that it hasn’t taken those considerations seriously in relation to legacy waste, but it has unjustifiably extended the conclusions which we put forward for legacy waste alone as if they applied equally to any new-build waste.”

Geological repository

In a 2007 consultation report on the future of nuclear power the government cited this committee recommendation. “The government believes that new waste could technically be disposed of in a geological repository and that this would be the best solution for managing waste from any new nuclear power stations,” it said.

MacKerron accused the government of being ‘cavalier’ in extending the committee’s recommendations to new waste. “The government has too readily said, because the committee has found what seems like a credible way of managing legacy waste we can automatically extend that to new waste,” he said.
Another former committee member, Peter Wilkinson, went further to say that the government had ‘cherry-picked’ ideas from the 2006 report to highlight deep geological disposal. “The government has used that as the fig leaf for radioactive waste management and, on the back of that, have gone ahead with this programme of new build. I don’t think they should even be thinking about a new-build programme until such time as the deep geological repository has been demonstrated as scientifically proven, and that’s a long way off,” he said.

A spokesman for the department of energy and climate change said it took nuclear waste ‘very seriously’. He said: “We do not agree that the committee’s findings have been unjustifiably extended to new-build wastes. The Nuclear Decommissioning Authority has recently completed a detailed assessment of the disposability of new nuclear waste. They are providing advice to the independent regulators, who are responsible for making sure that any new nuclear power station built in the UK meets the highest standards of safety, security, environmental protection and waste management.”

An NDA spokesman said that the European Commission had reported that safe geological disposal of high-level nuclear waste was technically feasible. “Also, of the 39 countries with significant nuclear waste, 25 have taken final decisions on long-term policy and all have opted for geological disposal.”
Wilkinson said that waste from a new generation of power stations would be “far hotter and more radioactive than anything we’ve hitherto had to deal with”. Both former committee members said the government’s plans would put an already creaking interim storage infrastructure under strain. Nuclear waste is currently stored in interim facilities at decommissioned reactor sites or, in the case of the most radioactive waste, at Sellafield in Cumbria. Many of these stores were never designed to last for the amount of time they will eventually be expected to be in service.” The government now suggests the lifetime of any future stores which will be necessary should be around 100 years,” said MacKerron.

According to independent nuclear consultant John Large, the nuclear industry does not have enough storage facility and there is not enough money to build what is required. The long-term issue of waste still cast a shadow over any future nuclear ambitions. “So far as putting in new nuclear power plants, we are as ill-prepared to handle the radioactive waste as we were in the 1960s.”