Burying safety issues on nuclear waste is not an option
Pete Wilkinson, Wednesday September 12, 2007, The Guardian
The UK used to dump low and intermediate level radioactive waste into the Atlantic , until it was forced to stop by green group pressure in 1983. After subsequent attempts to foist a deep waste disposal facility on communities from Oxfordshire to Cleveland, the then nuclear industry's waste disposal enforcer, Nirex, fought and lost its final battle in the 1990s when its attempts to construct a "rock characterisation facility" - or deep repository - in Cumbria were defeated.
So, in 2003, the government set up the Committee on Radioactive Waste Management (CoRWM), which, after three years' deliberation, reported in July last year. Its primary recommendation was for deep disposal as the best option, given the current state of knowledge. It argued that it was essential that a 9/11-proof storage review was undertaken and that an intensified research programme be pursued.
It also proposed that "willing communities" volunteer to host the repository, which will need to be a kilometre deep and large enough to hold nearly 500,000 cubic metres of highly dangerous wastes. As the day approaches when local authorities and parish councils will be asked if they wish to host it, the fate of the UK 's radioactive waste hangs in the balance.
A year after the CoRWM report, the government is still ignoring the advice from its own committee. It has eagerly accepted what it sees as the solution of deep geological disposal, but it has done little to address the vital prerequisites CoRWM called for: an intensified research programme to address uncertainties about storage and disposal, and a security-led review of storage.
CoRWM always recognised that the required societal consensus for its implementation was uncertain. It recommended the development of partnerships between the nuclear industry and "willing" communities as the only viable alternative to the previously unsuccessful policy of imposition, yet it accepted that disposal remains a deeply divisive and scientifically uncertain option. Storage of waste - possibly for up to 100 years or longer until alternative management solutions are developed - must be subject to a thorough, publicly accessible, national review by security experts. Nothing approaching this has so far been proposed.
Any hope of convincing a community to volunteer to host a repository depends on the level of confidence it can generate in the long-term safety of the repository. While it is accepted that radioactivity will escape from the repository, the rate at which it does so, over what period and with what radiological impact on people and the environment remains contentious.
Scientific, technical and ethical opinions on many of these issues are polarised and are likely to remain so while the government ignores the need for a comprehensive, transparent and auditable programme to seek greater consensus on such issues as gas build-up, microbiological activity, the impact of water ingress and egress, low-level radiation, backfill effectiveness and longevity around which will revolve public acceptability or rejection of disposal. The government appears oblivious to these issues and is picking those bits of the CoRWM report that it likes.
Quite apart from the array of unanswered questions - such as how to identify a "willing community", who "volunteers", and how a partnership might work in practice - deep geological disposal remains technically uncertain and ethically questionable. Storage has its own significant problems but represents the least worse option as it allows, rather than removes, choice for future generations, who should not be subjected to a potential long-term radiological risk simply for us to justify a mistaken, misguided and costly solution to climate change and energy security.
Nuclear power will provide neither, and if CoRWM's majority view - that speedy disposal of radioactive waste removes a burden to future generations - prevails, logic dictates that the creation of more waste produces just the sort of burden that disposal claims to remove.
Pete Wilkinson is a former member of CoRWM
Page Updated 15-Oct-2007