UK goes back to the drawing board on waste

4 November 2004

There have been a series of pro-nuclear stories surrounding the UK over the last nine months or so. Most notable was the front-page declaration by Gaia hypothesist James Lovelock that nuclear power is the only green solution, but vastly more significant was the evidence given by the Prime Minister, Tony Blair, to a group of senior members of parliament (MPs). Blair said that the greatest problems facing the UK are climate change and reductions in energy diversity as nuclear enters the decommissioning phase and is replaced by natural gas. He added that you could not rule out nuclear power if you are serious about climate change. It is estimated that by 2020, the UK will generate some 70% of its electricity from natural gas while only one nuclear plant, Sizewell B, will remain in service. To make matters worse, Britain’s own supply of gas from the North Sea will be all but exhausted by that time.

The two forces of Kyoto commitments – now binding following last month’s ratification by the Russian Federation – and Blair’s fears of energy dependence are beginning to make nuclear seem an attractive option again. But as Blair told the MPs: “If we are going to have a new generation of nuclear power stations, we are going to have to have a debate.”

Now, Elliot Morley, a minister in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) has told the House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology that he sees a solution to the UK’s waste problems as a prerequisite to a viable nuclear industry in the future. He was answering questions on the process of choosing a storage technology for UK wastes that is gathering momentum under the Committee on Radioactive Waste Management (CoRWM).

BACK TO BASICS

CoRWM was set up by Defra in 2003 to review every solution that has ever been considered for managing intermediate- and high-level solid radwaste in the UK and to give a recommendation to government in July 2006. The 13 committee members come from outside the core nuclear industry and also hold other jobs: ministers wanted a diverse committee that could start from a completely objective position. Together with a secretarial team supplied by Defra, their budget is just £750,000 – increased from the original sum of £500,000.

So a large part of CoRWM’s work so far has been to gain familiarity with the problem: the UK has over 1000 waste streams including those from weapons programmes and research that dates back almost 60 years. There is also a large amount of spent fuel, uranium and separated plutonium about which there is a fundamental disagreement both inside government and UK society: these materials may be considered as either waste or a resource, depending on your attitudes to reprocessing, which itself is a thorny subject in the UK: problems in the commissioning of the MOX fuel plant at Sellafield have harmed the government’s economic justification and political pressure from neighbouring Ireland will never stop.

Adding to the workload is the wide range of disposal methods. The most likely candidate of the 15 options (some of which contain sub-options) remains deep geologic disposal, but CoRWM must also evaluate more exotic solutions such as placing waste in tectonic subduction zones to be drawn into the Earth’s core, or allowing it to melt its way deep into Antarctic ice sheets. Even firing the stuff into space is a candidate. None of the latter three have the slightest chance of becoming a reality – and Morley said that “disposal at sea is clearly out” – but their consideration is necessary to a complete and balanced review. CoRWM recently announced their first attempts to shorten their ‘long list’ which currently contains the following:

  • Disposal in ice sheets.
  • Disposal in space.
  • Interim storage.
  • Disposal in subduction zones.
  • Sub-seabed disposal.
  • Deep disposal.
  • Direct injection.
  • Indefinite storage.
  • Phased deep disposal.
  • Disposal at sea.
  • Near-surface disposal.
  • Dilution and disposal.
Four techniques, while not options in their own right, will remain on the table to be considered in conjunction with one or more of the remaining ‘long list’ options:

  • Burning in reactors.
  • Incineration.
  • Partitioning and transmutation.
  • Melting of metals.
So 15 options containing sub-options have been narrowed down to 12 options that may be combined with one or more of four techniques. Not much progress for a year’s work. Nevertheless, the ‘back to basics’ approach is a sensible one to get the UK radwaste programme back on track. Nirex, the independent body concerned with the safe storage of intermediate-level waste, had been handling investigations into a UK geologic store. In 1997, Nirex had applied for planning permission to construct a rock characterisation laboratory at the Sellafield site to test the granite strata there for suitability, but this was refused by then environment secretary John Gummer in his last act for John Major’s government. The reason given was ‘flawed science’ at the core of the application and Nirex was widely seen as having ‘dropped the ball’. This left Britain relying on a medium-term strategy adequate for only the next few decades. A part of this interim strategy is Nirex’s work in assessing radwaste packaging: it issues radwaste producers with a ‘Letter of Comfort’ that wastes are securely and sensibly packaged for the medium term. For many years it has been the UK’s aim to eventually put ILW and HLW deep underground, but whether existing packages would be suitable for whichever long-term solution CoRWM suggests is unclear given the wide range of possibilities.

Morley said that “we can’t rely on current storage methods. We need to replace these storage facilities and we want a proper long-term solution.” Nirex have estimated that, “if things go well” a long-term underground facility could begin to accept waste in around 2025. The final readiness date is more likely to be in the 2040s but by that time some of the materials will have been in intermediate store for close to 100 years.

Morley told the Lords that he considers the value of proper public engagement that can avoid the “confusions and polarisation that we saw in the 1997 inquiry” as worth a small additional delay to a project with such a long timescale.

CONSULTATION ON A CONSULTATION

CoRWM’s chairman, Gordon MacKerron, told the Lords that the committee had visited Canada, Finland and Sweden as part of their fact-finding mission. He said that while the British problem is “significantly more complicated” because of the variety of wastes other than spent fuel, he thinks that “some of the lessons that we can get from those countries are clear and transferable, especially the need for a process of openness and transparency.” The visits have been exchanged on both sides, Timo Seppälä of Posiva, the company responsible for siting a final Finnish repository, and influencial Finnish MP Mikko Elo visited Britain and even held a fringe meeting on radwaste management alongside the annual conference of Blair’s Labour Party.

One thing that surprised and interested the committee was the fact that potential storage sites in Scandinavia have actually been competing to host facilities, something the UK can currently only dream about.

CoRWM will be hoping for this level of public cooperation as it begins its consultation phase. Letters were sent to about 3000 organisations across the country to make initial contact along with a questionnaire to find the best ways of consulting with public groups. The letters contained a report which detailed the long options list and asks the reader to suggest others. Members of the public were also invited to comment on issues important to themselves personally, CoRWM’s current nine criteria for reducing the options list as well CoRWM’s planned work schedule. There is also an information booklet on UK wastes, their volumes and current storage locations.

Morley told the Lords that he is confident CoRWM can prepare their advice in time for the July 2006 deadline, and it it is vital to the UK industry that this consultation proceeds smoothly. Not only does Britain need an answer to the waste problem, but it badly needs to build a wide public acceptance of nuclear power. It is certain that a positive outcome from this consultation would go a long way in preparing the ground for a public discussion on a possible new wave of nuclear build in the next decade. The government’s chief science advisor, David King, has recently said that the government has five years to decide the future of UK nuclear power. The shape of which, it is generally thought, would be a small wave of Westinghouse AP1000 units sited at existing generation sites. State-owned BNFL in turn own Westinghouse, so a different choice of vendor would be quite a surprise.




Privacy Policy
We have updated our privacy policy. In the latest update it explains what cookies are and how we use them on our site. To learn more about cookies and their benefits, please view our privacy policy. Please be aware that parts of this site will not function correctly if you disable cookies. By continuing to use this site, you consent to our use of cookies in accordance with our privacy policy unless you have disabled them.