Setting out a UK disposal strategy: no time to lose30 June 1999
Concerned by a lack of a clear national policy on dealing with radioactive waste, a committee of the UK House of Lords published a report, “Management of Nuclear Waste” which proposed a number of actions. The committee favours a process of “phased geological disposal” – involving surface storage, followed by retrievable and monitored geological emplacement, and finally back-sealing when judged safe to do so. But before a decision can be made, a full public and parliamentary debate is deemed essential. And should there be a renewed demand for nuclear power, a disposal strategy must be in place. In that case, there is no time to lose.
A member of the House of Lords’ subcommittee that produced the recent report, I am often reminded of another report, published nearly 23 years ago by the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution of which I was then the chairman. In that report the Royal Commission was concerned very broadly with the interaction of nuclear power and the environment. The House of Lords Report, by contrast, confined itself strictly to the management of nuclear waste in the United Kingdom.
The Royal Commission’s 1976 report recommended that “there should be no commitment to a large programme of nuclear fission power until it has been demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt that a method exists to ensure the safe containment of long-lived highly radioactive waste for the indefinite future”.
The new report points out very forcibly that the waste problem already exists, thanks to several decades of civil and military nuclear programmes, and to the continued operation and eventual decommissioning of present facilities, and neither expansion nor contraction of nuclear power production will make much difference to the extent of the problem.
The House of Lords’ report arose from the fact that the application by Nirex to construct a rock characterisation facility at Sellafield, as a first step towards the development of a deep geological depository, was refused planning permission in 1997.
We found that present policy had not only been thrown into confusion by this decision, but was in any case fragmented. Different approaches are envisaged for intermediate level waste and for high level waste, and yet again for intermediate level waste likely to arise in future, such as from decommissioned submarines. There is in Britain an excess of materials in store, particularly plutonium which requires special provision, for which there is no foreseen use, but which have not yet been declared to be waste, as we would wish. Most of our spent fuel is reprocessed, but not the fuel from the PWR at Sizewell, which also has not yet been declared to be waste. Thus even the total amount of waste and its categorisation are not properly defined.
This is unsatisfactory: to proceed with the siting and design of long-term facilities it is essential first to know what, and how much, is to be placed in them. We concluded that an integrated strategy is needed for all long-lived wastes, and an early decision on what materials are to be included as waste. Although near- surface disposal of low level waste is included in this strategy, I shall not discuss it here except to note that another facility will eventually be needed to replace the present one at Drigg.
In the course of our work we visited the USA and Canada, Sweden and France. We benefited greatly from discussions with our international colleagues, and from seeing for ourselves facilities in a state of experimentation or development. Two facilities are now in actual use for particular wastes, one in Sweden and one in New Mexico, and this is most encouraging.
Of the many methods that have been proposed for long-term management, some of which are no longer legal, only two may be seriously considered for the foreseeable future. The majority view of the scientific and technological community is to emplace suitably packaged waste in deep geological formations. The minority view, held particularly by certain environmental pressure groups, is to store it indefinitely at or near the surface in the hope that research will eventually find something better than deep emplacement.
High level waste, suitably packaged, will in any case be surface stored for fifty years or so, until its heat production no longer hinders underground emplacement. If, for any reason, waste has to be surface stored for much longer than that, the probability is that it will have to be repackaged and stored again in new facilities, an expensive and potentially dangerous operation. Moreover, it becomes increasingly dubious to predict that waste can be surface stored with safety, say a century or more ahead, such is the volatility of human civilisation and its lack of regard for sustained maintenance. Those who advocate it also call for the closure of the nuclear power industry. That would in any case severely diminish our capability for dealing with surface-stored wastes, as with all nuclear matters.
On the other hand, there is nowadays wide acknowledgement that deep geological emplacement should not yet take the form of irretrievable disposal. A period, perhaps a long period, of monitored underground storage is desirable before the store is back-sealed. Even the back-sealing should be in such a form that waste could at a later stage be removed if that became necessary, although this might not be without difficulty, and would require the depository to be appropriately designed. Back sealing should take place only when a long-term programme of monitoring has shown that it is safe to do so, and that might take a hundred years or more.
Incidentally, not much research has yet been carried out on long- term monitoring: what should be monitored and how. A programme is urgently needed.
What I have just described we have called “phased geological disposal” – a period of surface storage, followed by retrievable and monitored geological emplacement, and finally back-sealing when it is judged safe to do so. It is the process we strongly favour, because it would allow decisions to be taken in a considered and progressive way as technical confidence and experience develop, and would avoid premature actions that might be difficult to reverse. But we believe that sufficient technical assurance can now be given to allow the process of preliminary site selection to begin.
However, a high-level committee that has studied the problem intensively with the aid of the most expert advice available at home and abroad is one thing; public opinion is another. A dominant characteristic of much nuclear waste is the period of hundreds of thousands of years over which it must be effectively isolated from people and the environment. This poses problems, not only of technical assurance, but of public acceptance of that assurance in a field that is unique in its demands.
I will not give an appraisal of public attitudes here; they are well known. The chief complaint, and it seems justified, is that those so far responsible in the UK have not conducted themselves in a sufficiently open and transparent manner. This has compounded public anxiety and has engendered distrust. It is in contrast with Sweden, where there has been open government at all levels for more than 200 years, and where the problem of gaining public acceptance has been somewhat less acute. Good progress has also been made in Finland. It is well to remember, however, that mere openness may not be sufficient: the Americans have been eminently open, but they have run into a lot of difficulty with public acceptance. There must also be public understanding.
It is safe to assume that for the foreseeable future there will be at least a vocal minority opposed to nuclear power production and waste management procedures. What must be sought, and it must be sought through proper democratic channels, is majority acceptance in two stages. The first stage is national: acceptance that a particular process of waste management should be used; it is our hope that that process would be what we have called “phased geological disposal”, but the decision must be taken democratically and as widely as possible. The second is to agree that one or more particular sites may be chosen for disposal.
Agreement on the first count is a necessary preliminary, but it by no means guarantees the success of the second in the inevitable planning inquiry phase. However, it should make it simpler if the issues of national policy have been separated from those of locality. The difficulty of the Nirex inquiry was that the inspector was required to do too much: not only to resolve local issues, which is the proper function of a local planning inquiry, but to make major national policy on the hoof, so to speak.
I think I can best finish my story if I try to describe in an illustrative time sequence the steps we envisage will be taken in the twenty-five years or more it will take before the first waste can be emplaced.
We hope the Government will quickly accept our report as the basis for their policies, and will respond by developing a fully comprehensive policy for the long-term management of all UK nuclear waste, but there must be consultation before this policy is put before Parliament for debate and decision.
We suggest that the Government should first announce in the form of a Green Paper presented to Parliament that they are developing a comprehensive policy, and are minded to pursue phased geological disposal. This paper is intended for the widest possible consultation before Parliament takes any decisions. We imagine that the Green Paper might appear in less than a year from now.
In the second year, in order to conduct the public consultation in an orderly, expeditious and fair manner, there should be created a broadly based Nuclear Waste Management Commission with a professional staff, similar to our Health and Safety Commission only smaller, and at this stage without statutory powers. It would be financed from a segregated fund derived from a levy on the industry. Its work would be open; initially, it would consult widely, carry out economic assessments, and recommend site selection policies and procedures. Regulatory bodies for health and safety and for the environment would make their contributions to these consultations. At the same time the Government would draw up a complete inventory of all long-lived waste.
This stage will end by the Government formulating its policy in the light of the Commission’s consultation, which it will announce in the form of a White Paper to be discussed by Parliament, and a draft Bill. The Bill will establish policy and give it parliamentary approval; it will relaunch the Commission on a statutory basis; and it will bring about any desirable changes to planning law, including a compensation scheme for those communities affected by the long planning process. We imagine that the Bill will be debated and eventually passed during year 4. Thereafter, the Commission will communicate directly to Parliament by means of an annual report that should be debated at all significant stages.
It is a key feature of our proposals that Parliament itself should debate and approve the whole development at significant points on behalf of the nation as a whole. A sequence of stages of open and transparent consultation in depth, followed by parliamentary debate and approval, is the way we see democracy working in a matter of this gravity and time-scale. It is true that one cannot guarantee that parliamentary opinion will not change over a long period of time, but in the UK, at least, it is the most stable decision-making institution that we have, so we can do no better.
At about this time (around the 4th year) the Commission will be taking over the research responsibilities of Nirex and formulating its research strategy. If the Commission has decided to recommend, and Parliament has decided to adopt, phased geological disposal – and this is the first crunch decision – there will be set up by the nuclear industry itself a Radioactive Waste Disposal Company. It is the Company that will be responsible for the final stages of site selection and preparation, and for eventual monitoring and disposal, subject always to the approval of the Commission, which by this time will be acting somewhat as a specialised regulatory body.
When the Commission and the Company are both in operation, Nirex and the present Radioactive Waste Management Advisory Committee will close. It may be noticed that the Commission and the Company resemble the bodies recommended by the Royal Commission 23 years ago much more than do the present Nirex and RWMAC.
During the following few years the Commission will begin a second round of consultation to establish a long list of perhaps 15 or so possible depository sites, and it will begin to research them. The aim is to reduce this to a short list of perhaps 4 or 5 sites by public consultation, desk studies and volunteering. Of course, the government, the Company, and the regulatory bodies would all have their input. We hope that parliament would receive the short list in the 8th year, although it might be later, and that the Company could then begin investigating these sites in depth, in consultation with local communities. It is important that a generous compensation scheme should by then be in place to balance community benefits, as in France, against “planning blight” arising from the reservation of candidate sites for waste disposal.
This stage will continue until perhaps the 15th year when the Company will issue an environmental statement and make its choice of one or two sites for the approval of the Commission, which in the meantime will have closely monitored its work on site selection. The Company will then be able to apply for an order for the development of the final site, or sites if more than one is needed. That question must remain open until there is a full inventory of wastes for disposal, and the sites have been fully investigated and their capacities are known.
This planning application will undoubtedly be debated by parliament, but the main action will result from the Government’s calling a local public enquiry, on the outcome of which it will decide whether the Company should go ahead with the construction of an actual depository at a particular place. If the decision is favourable, the earliest one could expect waste to be emplaced is the 25th year, and it might well be considerably later.
I would like to end by emphasising that in spite of the long time-scale envisaged, the Government should act soon. The project will take at least 25 years, more likely 50, and cannot be rushed. Extensive public consultations, we know from other countries, take a lot of time if confidence is to be built up, especially when there is at present a loss of confidence thanks to the Nirex failure.
But there are other time-scales pressing on us. One I have already mentioned: it is the time-scale of degeneration of the present surface storage facilities which will need expensive replacement after about 50 years. The second involves the future of nuclear power production.
I personally believe that there is likely to be renewed demand for nuclear power during the next few decades arising from global climate change and the realisation that alternative energy sources cannot deliver on scale and in time. If that should prove to be true, we shall be under very great pressure to show that we can first dispose safely of nuclear waste. The situation envisaged by the Royal Commission 23 years ago, which I quoted at the beginning of this article, may become the determining factor. There is no time to lose.