Britain’s nuclear waste, a problem proving hard to bury

Now we need a hole big enough. Nuclear waste by Shutterstock. F.Schmidt

A proposal for radioactive waste to appear at a burial site nearby, would be likely to fill the great majority of the UK population with thoughts of danger, cancer – and falling house prices. This illustrates the huge problem of public misperception to overcome when disposing of radioactive waste.

Britain’s nuclear reactors have generated low-carbon electricity since 1956, in doing so creating around 260,000m3 (about the size of 700 double-decker buses) of intermediate-level waste and 3,000m3 of highly radioactive high-level waste, as well as spent fuel, plutonium and uranium. The price for decommissioning past and existing nuclear power plant and disposing of that waste is around £70 billion – the single largest item of expenditure for the UK Department of Energy and Climate Change.

What to do with radioactive waste is a problem that has so far proved to be intractable to successive generations of civil servants and ministers. In the mid-1970s, it was decided that deep burial would provide the optimum secure solution.

Here, radioactive waste would be packaged and contained for one million years, sealed by multiple chemical and physical barriers within a repository dug out around 500 metres below ground level. A serious attempt was made to investigate a site in West Cumbria close to Sellafield in the 1990’s, but that foundered on the complexity of the geology and flow of deep groundwater, making it difficult to predict how well sealed the waste would be into the far future.

In 2003, the government set up an expert committee of social scientists and policy analysts which in 2006 affirmed recommendations to bury waste within a geological disposal facility as the best method for securing radioactive waste. Communities should be asked to volunteer themselves as potential disposal sites. However the only volunteers in 2010 were in West Cumbria – the same sites that had already been rejected in the 1990s. The government carried on, providing several million pounds for community engagement, but in January 2013 the process ground to a halt after local district councils voted in favour, only for the overarching county council to reject the proposition.

Several issues of contention emerged. The right for the host community to withdraw was promised by the government, but never transcribed into any contract. A package of benefits to the hosting community was promised, but exactly what and when it would be paid was not stated. The definition of the host community, its boundary, and its relationship with the wider region remained vague. Exactly what waste would be buried was contested. And, as had previously been established, there was no confidence in the site’s geology. The government retired again to lick its wounds.

Another review and public consultation was undertaken during 2013-14, from which emerged the White Paper “Implementing Geological Disposal” published in July 2014. The results show the government has done some serious listening, and it provides some distinctly new approaches.

First, a new body Radioactive Waste Management Ltd will be created to pursue a disposal site. The company will be wholly owned by the government and could propose more than one facility for different types of waste. This has been tried in the 1980s and 1990s with UK Nirex – a limited company wholly owned by UK government, which spent £400m investigating just one site. Can you spot any difference? So how this operates will be more important than the definition.

Second, the government states it is keen to “listen and respond to views and concerns”. Yet in the future this search will now become defined as a nationally significant infrastructure project, which means that many powers of local people to decide or influence could be restricted or removed. Specifically, the control and influence of local councils has been removed, combined with a statement that no tier of government will have the right to veto a project. So the responsibility of regional council authorities for managing this waste, and the associated road and rail and excavation infrastructure is also removed.

Third, the search for a site will become national, with a two-year period of geological survey and screening to identify suitable regions (not specific sites). Identifying secure regions may become difficult if the extensive fracking of England goes ahead for shale gas and oil, as, any effect on the underlying geology could affect a site’s long term secure storage potential.

Detailed geophysical surveys and borehole drilling will need planning permission to establish the suitability of a site, before the community opinion is consulted to make a binding test of acceptance, after which there is no withdrawal. For the first time, communities will be able to access independent expert advice and support. We can expect intensive education campaigns. But it is not stated who that “community” includes and how much support of what type is needed. As always, the agreement of the people is potentially the Achilles heel of the entire process.

Fourth – and most contentious – is the proposal that communities who volunteer will receive £1m per year for five years of exploration, followed by £2.5m per year for [up to 15 years]( of further investigations and design, which is likely to include additional surveys or drilling. On top of that potential £40m, there will be “substantial” benefits during construction to an accepting community.

Communities could cash in on drilling in their area. DECC, CC BY-ND

The project will undoubtedly be extremely large. Analogies with Crossrail are appropriate, which is estimated to cost more than £15 billion at today’s prices. Thousands of jobs will be created over 10-20 years of construction. But the facility will only require a handful of long term employees for day-to-day operation. Finally, as another major shift, the facility will be permanently sealed after 100 years of operation for even greater security.

Potentially the most significant statement of all comes from the secretary of state for energy and climate change, Ed Davey, stating that arrangements for waste disposal have to be in place before planning consent will be given for new nuclear power stations. Does this mean that one or more sites need to be specifically identified before construction can start on the new nuclear reactors planned at Hinkley Point and elsewhere? If formal discussions with new volunteers do not even start until 2016, and could conclude as late as 2030 – by which time Hinkley Point C should be generating power – that seems impossible.

Perhaps ministers of the future be satisfied merely to know that the UK “has a plan”? If the past is any guide to the future, relying on such a plan didn’t help to find a nuclear mausoleum in 1978, 1996, or 2012.