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UK neglects its "serious and urgent" nuclear waste problem

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
#568
17/05/2002
Article

(May 17, 2002) The Royal Society (the UK's national academy of science) has published a highly critical response to the UK government's consultation document on nuclear waste, accusing the government of prioritizing PR activities over tackling the real problems of nuclear waste.

(568.5405) WISE Amsterdam - The Royal Society was responding to the consultation document "Managing Radioactive Waste Safely" (see WISE News Communique 554.5317, "UK: New public consultation on radwaste policy") from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA).

The Royal Society's response was described by the BBC as "a damning indictment of successive governments and the nuclear industry". It describes the problem of disposal of existing waste as "serious and urgent", and says that it must be solved "regardless of whether a new generation of nuclear power stations produces fresh volumes of waste". However, the DEFRA consultation document appears to assume that the main problem is "public presentation and acceptance" rather than the very real technical problems of dealing with radioactive waste.

Badly-managed waste
The UK currently has more than 10,000 tonnes of radioactive waste, and the amount will increase 25-fold once existing nuclear facilities are decommissioned. Despite this huge increase to come, management of existing waste is a shambles. Around 90% of existing high level waste (HLW) and intermediate level waste (ILW) remain in "unconditioned form" - in other words, not yet packaged in a form suitable for long-term storage.

The Magnox waste is a particular problem because it is chemically reactive. It contains metallic uranium, which can spontaneously catch fire if exposed to air, and metallic magnesium, which burns intensely with a blinding white light. The industry says reprocessing is the only way to make Magnox fuel safe, but the Royal Society points out that this in turn generates "highly radioactive and very hazardous liquids, which are energetic and mobile and have a very high natural tendency to disperse". These liquids are stored in tanks at Sellafield, which must be continuously cooled to prevent a serious nuclear accident from occurring.

Vitrification "inevitably produces some liquid effluent which has hitherto been discharged to sea". These discharges are the subject of protests from many countries, including Norway and Ireland. Also the vitrification is so far behind schedule because of a variety of incidents, including fires (see WISE News Communique 541, "In Brief") that reprocessing has at times been delayed (see WISE News Communique 543.5242, "Sellafield: Waste tanks incident").

Use of plutonium or reprocessed uranium in "second cycle fuels" such as MOX would create "still more complicated wastes", and there are "concerns amongst UK scientists" about the disposal of irradiated MOX fuel.

With low-level waste (LLW) and ILW there is also the problem that much of it contains organic matter such as resins, paper or cloth. These eventually generate methane and carbon dioxide, and reactions involving metals will generate hydrogen. All these gases could contain traces of radionuclides and so be radioactive.

Because of these problems, the Royal Society concludes that changes in waste management are essential "regardless of whether a new generation of nuclear power stations generates fresh volumes of waste". The current nuclear waste management regime in the UK "falls short of that which could be achieved through the use of currently available technologies".
To improve this, they propose "BATNEEC" (best available technology not entailing excessive cost). Unfortunately, failing to give a definition of "excessive cost" makes this phrase rather meaningless.

Lack of research
The Royal Society calls for new research, particularly into conditioning nuclear waste into "forms that are passively safe and robustly stored". It is pointed out that there are many different types of nuclear waste, and each type requires a suitable conditioning process. "Unfortunately", the report continues, "the relevant scientific and technological research base has been seriously diminished".

The report proposes more international collaborations, commenting that "an independent report at EU level might be appropriate".

Risks - not just terrorism
After 11 September, "an urgent safety review should take into account the possibility of extreme terrorist intervention". However, terrorists are not the only risk: "The present hazard is real and the risk only maintained at acceptably low levels by very active management systems. These are costly and inevitably bring some risk of worker exposure".

Spin-doctors fail
The government spin-doctors seem to think it is just a case of "managing the debate" rather than finding real solutions. In this, they follow the industry, which according to the report, "seems to have regarded treatment of waste as of secondary importance, and to have focused its efforts on countering what it saw as hostile public opinion and on economic concerns".

However, the Royal Society points out that the nuclear waste issue has been a public relations failure. In particular, the UK nuclear waste agency Nirex "is closely associated with the failed policies of the past." Instead, they support the House of Lords' proposals for a Nuclear Waste Management Commission (see WISE News Communique 508.5004, "UK advice: Underground repository for LLW; excess PU should be classified as waste").

They also foresee that new problems could arise from the splitting off of BNFL's nuclear liabilities into a new Liabilities Management Authority (see WISE News Communique 559.5347, " Full steam ahead for UK's nuclear industry 'Titanic' ", which also appeared in last December's NIRS Nuclear Monitor). The precise role of this new authority is unclear, but there will be "new regulatory interfaces" as responsibility for cleanup of nuclear sites is shifted to the new authority, which "can cause delays and increase costs".

The report finishes with a final warning that the reprocessing industry must not be allowed to dictate nuclear waste policy: "It is essential too ensure that waste disposal decisions and options are not driven exclusively by pre-commitments to upstream production stages, for example the commitment to reprocessing".

Sources:

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