What to do with waste, particularly spent fuel, remains the nuclear industry’s most intractable problem, one which unless a solution is found, will ultimately lead to the industry’s demise. Beyond the practical questions of what to do with the waste lies the highly political problem of public acceptance.

In an attempt to address some of the issues surrounding the public’s relations with the nuclear industry, the UK Centre for Economic and Environmental Development (UK CEED) organised a consensus conference where 15 randomly chosen ‘lay-people’ with no previous involvement in the industry, were asked to consider the questions surrounding waste and produce a report with recommendations for action. The conference took place between 21-24 May at Westminster Central Hall in London.

Asking ‘the public’ to think about what to do with nuclear waste is a radical departure on past practices. The nuclear industry has long been criticised for being too secretive, for presenting an attitude of ‘we know best’ and for treating public opinion with a certain degree of contempt.

The conference involved two days of debate, with expert witnesses from both the industry and its opponents presenting evidence and argument. Following the debate the 15 members of the panel produced a report in which they recommended shallow burial of the waste, in one location in the UK, with access maintained and the site continually monitored.

“The panel was unanimous that in order for a solution to be publicly acceptable the waste MUST remain accessible and monitorable, to give future generations a chance to deal with the problem if / when a solution is found,” said the report.

Other conclusions included:

• Recommendation of the appointment of a neutral body appointed by the Government to deal with waste management, including the selection of a national storage site. The criteria for site selection should be open and publicised.

• All institutions handling radioactive waste should conform to high standards which should involve random scrutiny.

• Research and development must be continued on a much larger scale and international cooperation should be encouraged.

• No problem with privatisation of BNFL if done properly with adequate safeguards.

• At present there is a lack of trust and understanding and public awareness must be raised. The public needs to be fully informed of the problems and solutions available. Decision-making must be open and transparent. Radioactive waste issues should be made part of the Government’s education strategy.

• No fundamental opposition to nuclear power, but it should not be expanded until a way is found to deal adequately with the waste problem.

• A new and internationally-accepted method of waste classification is needed, clear and openly communicated to the public as well as industry.

• Existing international reprocessing contracts should be honoured but no new ones should be taken up.

• While the industry has in the past had a well-deserved reputation for secrecy, the panel noted a welcome shift in culture and a new feeling of openness in dealing with these difficult issues.

Michael Meacher, the UK environment minister, in responding to the report, appeared to shift government policy towards the shallow retrievable option preferred by the panel.

“I agree that waste must be underground, monitorable, retrievable and not back filled,” he said.

In response to the panel’s conclusion that no new reprocessing contracts should be entered into, Meacher was coy, describing it as a “highly controversial” issue.

Friends of the Earth welcomed the entire process, but disagreed with some of the panel’s conclusions, arguing that waste should be stored at the site where it is produced and not transported to a central repository and that it should remain above ground where it could more easily be controlled.

David Bonser of British Nuclear Fuels said that the report gave the lie to the idea that nuclear issues are too difficult for the public to deal with and that he believed consensus discussions should form a cornerstone of the way society moves forward on the waste question. Historically the debate has been far too polarised and areas of agreement must be found.

One area which clearly caught the panel’s imagination was the potential for new solutions to the waste problem to be developed through research, in particular that of transmutation. Kathleen Sullivan, a freelance research consultant who was one of the most anti-nuclear of the expert witnesses argued that the idea of transmuting fission products into more benign isotopes “feeds the myth of ‘final solutions’ and advanced technological fixes which basically gives carte blanche to the nuclear industry to continue”. However the panel was convinced by Peter Beck of the Royal Institute of International Affairs, that transmutation held out the possibility of solving all the most crucial problems by reducing the time scale during which waste is dangerous from 100 000s of years to 100s and by destroying plutonium; thus removing concerns over weapons proliferation.

“Despite Dr Sullivan’s misgivings, it is the panel’s view that there should be intensive research in this area. Her argument that transmutation would allow the continuation of nuclear fuel would, in our view, be an excellent reason for the continued use of nuclear energy. Furthermore, any solution to the problem of radioactive waste should be grasped and welcomed by the global industry,” said the report.

The panel expressed concern at the apparent lack of involvement by the UK industry in transmutation research, pointing out that Nirex has spent £450 million on deep disposal and were ultimately “fruitless in their efforts to obtain permission to carry out further research in this area”.

Perhaps the most important result of the conference was the ability of fifteen people without years of training not only to understand the issues surrounding nuclear waste but to come to constructive conclusions after only a few days study. The perception that the questions are too difficult and complex for the public to be able to make a contribution to the debate appears wrong. None of the panel opted for knee-jerk opposition of nuclear power and the report recognises that the questions are complex.

“We would as a panel look forward to an end of nuclear power if such was feasible,” said the report. “This is only possible if a pollution free alternative without an incumbent set of problems was able to sustain energy needs. We certainly do not want to replace one set of problems with another.” The question now is where to go from here? The UK government has recently received reports from both the House of Lords (see following article) and this panel representing the public. It has promised a response, probably before the end of the year. What is clear from history is that communities will not tolerate solutions imposed on them. What may be the most telling conclusion of the report is the panel’s endorsement of the House of Lords’ conclusion that: “Openness and transparency in decision-making are necessary in order to gain public trust, but they are not in themselves enough. Mechanisms must be used to include the public, or groups within it, representing a wide spectrum of views in decision-making.”