Bury your nuclear waste, UK advised

New Scientist, 27 April 2006 (extracts)

The UK government has been advised by an official panel to dispose of nuclear waste by burying it deep underground - the same solution it has already rejected three times over the last 30 years.

The Committee on Radioactive Waste Management (CoRWM) recommended today that geological disposal is the "best available approach" for the long term management of 470,000 cubic metres of waste from nuclear power and weapons.

Meeting in Brighton, CoRWM's 13 experts agreed to urge the government to take urgent action, pointing out that there had been a "vacuum" in UK policy. Eleven other countries favour deep disposal, including the US, Russia, Japan, Australia, France and Germany.

But CoRWM has highlighted the need for secure "interim storage" for one or two generations over "several decades". It said that there may be technical problems at sites proposed for deep disposal, as well as "social and ethical concerns".

Political hot potato

CoRWM is not recommending any particular sites, but suggesting that the government now needs to begin a process of selecting them. Its recommendations come as the UK government is considering a programme of new nuclear power stations.

But CoRWM's chairman, Gordon MacKerron, stresses that its recommendations should not be seen as a green light for new stations. "We don't believe that anything we say is in any way endorsing new build," he says.

The committee was set up by the government three years ago to try and find a way of handling one of the hottest political potatoes of recent years. Previous plans for burying nuclear waste underground at various locations were rejected in 1981, 1987 and 1997 - twice in the run-up to general elections.

An earlier shortlist of 12 potential disposal sites throughout the UK was kept secret for 15 years until it was forced into the open by New Scientist and others using the freedom of information act. Those sites, particularly the two front-runners next to nuclear plants - Sellafield in Cumbria and Dounreay in Caithness - are now likely to come back into the frame.

CoRWM's recommendations will now go out for a final round of consultations, before being submitted to government in July. The committee will consider whether to make further recommendations on preferred types of geological disposal.

Host benefits

Geological disposal involves putting waste in a hole between 300 metres and 2 kilometres deep. It depends on identifying stable geological formations that can help keep the waste safe for many thousands of years.

CoRWM has suggested that nuclear waste sites should only be in communities which volunteer to host them. Local residents should also receive some benefits in return.

Editor's note: Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and Stop Hinkley strongly disagree with Corm's proposals. Final responses to the CoRWM paper can be submitted by 8th June to:

CoRWM Secretariat
4/F8 Ashdown House
123 Victoria Street
London SW1E 6DE

Or by email to: contact@corwm.org.uk

060427

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