The main surprise on 10 January was not the UK government’s announcement to give the go-ahead to new nuclear build, but the Conservative opposition party’s unequivocal support for the government’s policy on new nuclear. “Our position is, by and large, similar to the government’s,” Alan Duncan, the shadow secretary for business, enterprise and regulatory reform, said in response to the announcement.

Less than two weeks later, however, the tone was less supportive. Commenting on the second reading of the energy bill, Duncan said: “It is simply unacceptable that the government intends to leave the radioactive legacy of their new nuclear programme in such a state of uncertainty.” He concluded: “We do not accept that nuclear power should be allowed to go ahead without a guaranteed regime for handling nuclear waste.”

The government itself has strongly implied that waste management issues must be resolved before new build could proceed. In its much-maligned energy white paper of 2003, titled Our energy future – creating a low carbon economy, the government stated: “Although nuclear power produces no carbon dioxide, its current economics make new nuclear build an unattractive option and there are important issues of nuclear waste to be resolved… We do not, therefore, propose to support new nuclear build now.”

For the government to support new nuclear as it is now doing, it should follow that it believes that those “important issues of nuclear waste” have been resolved – or at least are close to being resolved. However, Duncan claims that, when it comes to nuclear waste, the government is “paralysing the economics, undermining public confidence, and passing the responsibility onto future generations and future governments.”

There are therefore two diametrically opposed views on waste arising from new build – so who’s right?

Legal challenge

Given that Greenpeace successfully challenged the government one year ago on a promise it made in the 2003 energy white paper (that “before any decision to proceed with the building of new nuclear power stations, there would need to be the fullest public consultation”) and that the same white paper indicated that new nuclear should not go ahead without resolving problems associated with waste, this issue has the potential to scupper any new build programme. Furthermore, in his ruling in favour of Greenpeace on 15 February 2007, Mr Justice Sullivan emphasised that the disposal of nuclear waste was one of two issues identified in the 2003 white paper “as being of critical importance” (the other issue being the economics of new nuclear).

So, if very little progress on nuclear waste has been made since the 2003 white paper, then it is a near-certainty that an antinuclear organisation will launch a legal challenge.

The government, on the other hand, believes that the waste issues referred to in the 2003 white paper have been resolved, or are being resolved. In particular, on 25 October 2006, the government responded to the Committee on Radioactive Waste Management’s (CoRWM’s) recommendations on the long-term management of radioactive waste, which were published three months earlier. The then environment secretary David Miliband told parliament: “We accept CoRWM’s recommendations that the UK’s higher activity waste should be managed in the long term through geological disposal, as well as the continuing need for safe and secure interim storage until geological disposal is available.”

And since deciding on interim storage/geological disposal, a number of steps have been taken towards implementing this decision. After the High Court ruled that the previous nuclear consultation process held in 2006 was flawed, a new consultation, titled The future of nuclear power: the role of nuclear power in a low carbon UK economy, has taken place. Launched on 23 May 2007 and closing on 10 October, The future of nuclear power resulted in the government’s 10 January announcement, along with the publication of Meeting the Energy Challenge – A White Paper on Nuclear Power as well as the new energy bill. In addition, a consultation on Managing Radioactive Waste Safely: A framework for implementing geological disposal ran from 25 June through to 2 November 2007. Announcing the publication of the summary and analysis of the responses – also on 10 January – a written statement by secretary of state for environment, food and rural affairs Hilary Benn reconfirmed the government’s position on waste management: “As set out in its response to CoRWM’s recommendations in October 2006, the government continues to see geological disposal as the way forward for the long-term management of higher activity radioactive waste.” The government’s full response to the Managing Radioactive Waste Safely (MRWS) consultation is due in the spring. In the meantime, a consultation on waste and decommissioning financing provisions guidance is due to commence soon.

As a result of all this, the nuclear white paper claims: “We have made progress since 2003 towards a long-term solution to waste management. And we are confident that the new powers we are taking will ensure that industry will meet the full costs of decommissioning and their full share of waste management and disposal costs.”

But do both of these points – (a) that progress on waste has been made and (b) that the private sector will finance back end costs – stand up to scrutiny?

Towards a solution

When CoRWM made its July 2006 recommendations, it could not have been more clear that its recommendations applied only to legacy waste, not waste arising from a new build programme. “CoRWM is emphatic that the management of waste arising from a new build programme should be the subject of a separate process,” the committee said, adding: “CoRWM members are unanimous in their view that the results of CoRWM’s public and stakeholder engagement programme cannot be taken to provide an endorsement that its recommendations should also apply to wastes from new build.”

Furthermore, noting that “the construction and operation of a new generation of nuclear power stations will make it difficult to define a waste inventory once and for all,” the committee’s report went on: “It is CoRWM’s view that communities are unlikely to express a willingness to participate in a siting process unless they have a clear understanding of the waste inventory they may be asked to accept.” In other words, besides the fact that CoRWM’s recommendations do not apply to waste arising from new build, should this be overruled, then the inclusion of new build waste would jeopardise a waste repository programme.

But this delicate argument seems to be lost on the government. “The government has thus concluded that it would be technically possible to dispose of waste from new nuclear power stations in a geological disposal facility,” it states matter-of-factly in its January white paper. Earlier, in its energy white paper of May 2007, the government said: “The key ethical question that needs to be considered as part of the discussion on the future role of nuclear power is whether to create new waste; once new waste is created it would need to be managed and disposed of, in the same way as existing waste.”

Although the paper doesn’t state outright that waste from new nuclear would be included in the storage/geological disposal programme recommended by CoRWM for legacy waste (assuming it is ever successfully realised), it does say: “We consider that it would be desirable to dispose of both new and legacy waste in the same repository facilities and that this should be explored through the MRWS process.”

In its October 2006 response to CoRWM’s recommendations, the government decided that the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) was to be “given the responsibility for developing and ensuring delivery and implementation of the programmes for interim storage and implementing geological disposal.” Yet its July 2002 white paper, Managing the Nuclear Legacy – A strategy for action, asked: “Is the creation of the Liabilities Management Authority a backdoor route to more nuclear power?” (The ‘Liabilities Management Authority’ was the name given then to what would be the NDA.) “No,” the white paper answered, “there is no direct link between the creation of the Liabilities Management Authority and any future proposals for new nuclear capacity. The LMA will focus on dealing with the consequences of the past.”

It is now clear that there is, in fact, a direct link between the NDA and new build: the NDA not only has the responsibility for the waste management programme (which will almost certainly include new build waste) but also it is currently planning to make its sites available for new nuclear build.

On the one hand, it is fair to say that progress on waste has been made since the 2003 white paper but, on the other, progress is not being made in a particularly desirable way. This point was emphasised in June of last year by the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee. “We have serious concerns about the way the government are moving forward with the MRWS programme,” Lord Broers, chairman of the House of Lords committee, said. “The decisions we take now on radioactive waste will affect future generations for thousands of years. The government’s stop-start approach creates the impression that these decisions are being driven by short-term energy policy goals, rather than by careful and impartial consideration of the scientific and practical realities. The proposals they have announced so far have been incoherent and confusing.”

Financing cleanup

Turning to the financing of the back end costs associated with new build, the government has emphasised on several occasions that the full lifecycle costs of any new nuclear programme would be borne by the private sector. So what was it in the energy bill that led Duncan to accuse the government of “paralysing the economics”?

The energy bill would put the onus on the licence applicant to “prepare and submit to the secretary of state a funded decommissioning programme.” The funded decommissioning programme would have to state the nature and cost of cleanup, and propose how cleanup would be financed.

This is, of course, vague in the extreme. Would the applicant be allowed to assume that new build waste would be disposed of as part of the programme recommended by CoRWM for legacy waste? If so, should costs for additional vaults in a geological repository be estimated, or for a proportional share of the entire repository programme? And so on.

The question for the industry is whether the near-impossible task of coming up with a funded decommissioning programme bearing any resemblance to the eventual reality will undermine new build. Should it be considered that the risk to the taxpayer is unreasonably high, then new build will be subject to potentially fatal legal challenges. Even without any challenges, if the Conservative party refuses to support a new nuclear programme on the basis that back end arrangements are “in such a state of uncertainty,” then the risk associated with the lack of cross-party support might also be enough to prevent any new build programme from getting off the ground.

To conclude, it seems that, at least on the surface, the UK has a plan for the management and financing of new build back end liabilities. But the plan is based on broken promises, is not transparent, is lacking in legitimacy, and apportions a high degree of financial risk to future generations. While the government’s support of new nuclear is to be welcomed, it looks like it neglected to cover its back end.

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By Stephen Tarlton

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Scottish policy on nuclear

The Scottish government is antinuclear and believes that Scotland’s energy should be supplied from renewable sources, and ‘cleaner’ fossil fuels along with carbon capture and storage. On 17 January, a majority of members of the Scottish Parliament reinforced the government’s position by agreeing with the antinuclear stance.
The Scottish government did not take part in the UK waste consultation process because it is in favour of long-term near-surface storage of waste at or near existing nuclear plants, and against deep geological disposal.
The government seeks to minimise transports of radioactive waste and is opposed to moving waste generated in Scotland to other countries. This policy does not apply to those extant foreign reprocessing contracts at Dounreay, in northern Scotland, which are subject to a ‘return of waste’ clause.
A proposal has already been made for a new near-surface repository for low-level waste adjacent to Dounreay. It is expected that the nuclear industry will have to take a similar position at plants in southern Scotland.
The government takes the view that intermediate-level waste should also be stored at or near the nuclear sites where it is produced.