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UK: New public consultation on radwaste policy

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 

(September 21, 2001) The UK Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs has announced a 5-year public consultation on the future management of radioactive waste. The review means a new start in UK nuclear waste policy and follows the 1997 failure to implement an underground laboratory at Sellafield and a review (1997-1999) by the House of Lords on the issue.

(554.5317) WISE Amsterdam - In 1989, Sellafield was announced as the site for an underground laboratory, the Rock Characterization Facility (RCF) to study the suitability for waste disposal in an underground rock formation near the reprocessing plant. In 1997, however, the site was dismissed because of, amongst others, "straightforward planning matters" (visual impact of the aboveground works) and reasons "particular to the RCF" (mainly geological and geohydrological reasons).

After the dismissal of RCF, a committee of the House of Lords (the Upper House of the British parliament) conducted an inquiry. The House of Lords committee recommended that work on the underground disposal option should continue and that a repository be realized within 50 years.

On 12 September 2001, the Minister of Environment Michael Meacher published the paper Managing Radioactive Waste Safely - proposals for developing a policy for managing solid radioactive waste in the UK. With its publication, the public has been invited to send comments on a number of issues, like waste amounts, categories, public debate, strategies for the long-term future, etc.

The UK at the moment has 10,000 tons of radioactive waste stored, but that will increase to 250,000 tons when nuclear material currently in use is converted into solid waste. Another 250,000 tons will arise when nuclear installations will be dismantled.

The paper contains proposals for how to organize a public debate and intended to obtain a broad input by organizing opinion polls, citizens' juries, research panels, etc. With the setting up of an independent advisory body, the government hopes to achieve an accurate, objective and complete review.

The consultation will consist of five phases:

  1. six months consultation about the proposed program (2001-2002)
  2. research and public debate and recommend best option (2002-2004)
  3. consultation seeking public views on recommended option (2005)
  4. seeking public view on implementation of chosen option (2006)
  5. legislation, if needed (2007)

Part of the consultation is also the question whether plutonium or certain amounts of spent fuel should be regarded as nuclear waste and no longer as usable resource. The House of Lords review has already recommended a dual-approach to plutonium from reprocessing: a minimum strategic stock and the rest to be declared as waste. In fact, this represents a step away from reprocessing.

No doubt remembering the loss of public confidence after the RCF debacle, the government now says: "We want to inspire public confidence in the decisions and the way in which they are implemented. To do that, we have to demonstrate that all options are considered". The option of long-term aboveground storage (awaiting a better solution) is one of the themes open for discussion. That was for Greenpeace, opponent of underground disposal, reason enough to welcome the proposed consultation and consider it as an "important breakthrough".

The Nuclear Free Local Authorities (NFLA) will also engage in the process but said that their "confidence in it will be shaped by Government action in the area of civil nuclear policy as a whole". NFLA has also certain doubts about the role of the government as they are gaining a reputation for centralized decision making whilst creating the appearance of democratic participative consultation and policy development. NFLA refers to the way in which ministers are already arguing for new reactors, even before the UK energy policy review has delivered its report (see also WISE News Communique 553.5305: "UK: energy review to be pre-empted by Scottish reactor plan?").

Despite repeated requests, the government still does not want to make public the lists of locations that were under consideration for waste disposal in the past. A list of 500 possible locations was defined in the late 1980s and later narrowed to 11. NFLA demands once more that the list be published as the areas need to be alerted to the fact that they were under consideration in the past and that full participation in the current consultation is in their interest.

The NFLA comments: "It is shortsighted of Government not to release this information because if such an area finds itself under consideration in the future for a waste repository, but didn't engage the policy process from the outset, then it is bound to want to go back to the beginning of policy development and scrutinize every decision making stage".

The outcome of the consultation could also have important implications for the planned privatization up to 49% of BNFL. Potential shareholders may be reluctant to invest in the company if there is no clear strategy for dealing with the liabilities of waste from reprocessing.

Managing Radioactive Waste Safely can be found at:


  • Discussions on Nuclear Waste, Laka Foundation, January 2000
  • Managing Radioactive Waste Safely, September 2001
  • Press release DEFRA, 12 September 2001
  • Daily Telegraph, 13 September 2001
  • Email from NFLA, 19 September 2001

Contact: Nuclear Free Local Authorities (NFLA), Town Hall, Manchester M60 2LA, UK Tel: +44 161 234 3244; fax: +44 161 234 3379