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Our legacy of nuclear waste

Too hot to handle? The what, when, where and how of nuclear waste policy
Andrew Blowers OBE Northumbria University, 12 April 2005
Part of the Sustainable Cities Seminar series
Review by Aidan Burton

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Nuclear power and the waste it produces are clearly back on the political agenda. The UK has increasing demand for power coinciding with a rejection or retirement of its major means to produce energy. Gas, oil and coal based power stations are being rejected on the grounds of emissions of gases causing climate change and existing nuclear power stations need to be retired due to their age. This imbalance leads to forecasts that the UK will not have a sufficient generating capacity to meet its demands, perhaps as soon as 2020. Many commentators (e.g. see Stott, 2005) consider that the renewable energy sources, such as wind, hydro, tidal, wave and bio-fuels, are not practical solutions to this shortfall. Instead, these may provide only a component of a mix of energy generation sources that almost inevitably include nuclear power. The basis of opposition to nuclear power arises from the wastes that nuclear technologies produce. Therefore it is important in any debate on the future power requirements of the UK that there is a clear understanding of the issues concerning nuclear waste. Andrew Blowers OBE provided an excellent summary of these issues in his seminar: Too hot to handle? The what, when, where and how of nuclear waste policy, Northumbria University, 12 April 2005.

Blowers introduced the seminar first with a history of nuclear waste. The formative period for nuclear power was in the 1940s-1960s. This arose from nuclear weapons research against which there was already an active protest movement. At this time scientists were generally trusted by the public and the program was shrouded in secrecy. A secrecy that even extended to the major accidents of the period and which was a natural consequence of its origins. When nuclear power was publicly discussed it was largely in terms of the social benefits to society. At this time nuclear waste was not seen to be a problem partly because the focus was on energy production and partly because there was not much of it. Disposal at that time may now be seen as a largely ad-hoc affair.

The 1970s-1980s saw the development of an anti-nuclear-power environmental movement and increasing public and political awareness of the risks of nuclear waste. In 1976 a Royal Commission recommended that there should be no commitment to nuclear fusion until it was clear that waste could be dealt with. Public awareness was particularly heightened following a series of high profile nuclear disasters that included Three Mile Island, USA in 1979, and Chernobyl, USSR in 1986. In the 1990s nuclear waste continues to be a major issue and in 1999 a House of Lords Select Committee pointed out that public trust could only be achieved by a general presumption of disclosure, openness and transparency by the industry. It should be noted that the present view of nuclear waste may change again in the future, for example climate change issues may influence public opinion to be more accepting of the perceived risks of nuclear waste.

Blowers then went on to describe the what of nuclear waste. Nuclear waste is classified into three categories roughly according to its level of radioactivity: high, intermediate and low level. At present the UK produces about 400 000 m3 per year of waste that cannot be processed or disposed and is instead stored at numerous locations at typically remote locations around the country. This quantity may be described in terms of the number of Albert Halls it could fill.

An isotope is a substance that consists of atoms whose nuclei all contain the same number of protons and number of neutrons. A radioactive isotope decays with a natural rate that varies greatly according to the precise constituents of its atomic nuclei. Decay of individual atoms is random, but may be described in terms of the expected time it takes half of the atoms in a sample of an isotope to decay (the half life). This time may vary from tiny fractions of a second to 24 000 years for Plutonium (239Pu), 15.7 million years for Iodine (129I) and 4500 million years for Uranium (238U), which are some of the constituents of waste products of nuclear power. The problem of waste is therefore a long term one, in the most extreme sense.

Three concepts are useful when considering our responsibility to future generations: The Precautionary Principle, that a lack of scientific uncertainty is not a reason to postpone measures to prevent likely environmental degradation; Intergenerational Equity, future society should not have to pay for our benefits and our nuclear waste should not risk future generations in ways we would not ourselves accept; Sustainable Development, we should be able to meet our needs without compromising future generations ability to meet their needs.

Scientists are therefore studying how such wastes may be made ‘safe’ for periods of 1000s or even millions of years. Clearly such questions are incredibly difficult if not impossible for scientists to resolve and must be put into a human context. Most people can conceptualise a few generations back or forwards in time, and often don’t believe that containment is possible even over these time scales. When thinking on time scales of 1000s of years or greater it is instructive to ask how many European institutions have survived 1000 years.

The question of “where the nuclear industry is located?” was then addressed by Blowers mainly in terms of its social impacts. Typically nuclear industries are located in remote areas and become the largest employer in the region. The local economies may then become largely dependant the industry. Consequently such communities may be strongly affected by a remote politically motivated decision making process. Although such communities must bear the brunt of their close proximity to heavily contaminated sites they do have two minor benefits in their favour. Firstly, whilst there is a risk to their economy from power generation plant closures, the waste management industry cannot be closed down. Secondly, they have a strong moral stance in political argument: if they have to carry the burden of the nuclear industry, what is in it for them from the rest of society?

So how can the nuclear waste problem be solved? Blowers described the various approaches that have been considered and concluded that the problem is not solvable in our lifetimes and that all proposed solutions are unsatisfactory. The process of deciding what to do about this situation must integrate scientists, politicians, the public and stakeholders. Studies have considered 15 options in detail that may be roughly classified into three categories: storage the default option if no better option is found), disposal (some people find all such methods unacceptable) and treatment. Treatment was not discussed in the seminar in any detail, the impression being that such approaches are not generally viable at present. Four of the 15 options were short listed: storage, near surface disposal (for intermediate and low level wastes), deep disposal and phased deep disposal.

Whatever approach is eventually taken, the choice should made according to the principles that it is: open and transparent; in the public interest; fair both to local communities and to future generations; and (of course) efficient, cost effective and conclusive. Unfortunately such decisions must be made within a political context that has a time horizon of only four years. Consequently it will always be possible for politicians to ignore the problem as not urgent enough to warrant their attention. Indeed on the time scales that must be considered, the political context must be considered as constantly in flux.

Following the main presentation a number of questions were asked of Professor Blowers by the audience.

First there was a question about the import or export of nuclear waste. The UK operates a closed cycle with respect to the import of nuclear waste. It is not a net importer of nuclear waste. Originally, the UK, France and Russia developed a capability to carry out reprocessing with the aim of producing fuel for fast breeder reactors. However, this form of reactor did not become a popular design and so the market for reprocessing is quite limited. Initially waste streams were vitrified and all imported materials were repatriated to the country of origin. Currently a substitution process is happening whereby high level waste is returned instead of an ‘equivalent’ amount but much larger volume of low level waste.

An issue was raised about short term thinking motivating a possible move by the government toward nuclear power without properly considering the issues of waste. Further, the idea was raised that “If it is safe to put waste anywhere, it should be located near the powerful and the affluent: that would really test the governments commitment to safety and sustainability.” Whilst such an idea is impractical it clearly identifies the social issue of choice of location. Some examples were quoted, albeit not in the UK, in which disadvantaged communities had nuclear waste facilities imposed on them by their governments. Waste on such a heavily contaminated site as Sellafield is impossible to move and so it will become a waste site for at least the next 100 years. There is a strong latent resistance in society to nuclear waste. If for example a green field site was selected there would be immediate and massive local opposition. However, on a cautionary note it is important to recognise that the younger generation may not remember (or know about) Chernobyl and the immediate risks may be forgotten.

A final question asked Blowers for a practical solution to predicted future power shortages. Firstly he emphasised that the future is, by its nature, unpredictable. Nuclear power comes with a lot of down sides and unfortunately is often touted as the solution when it is really more of a default option. Fusion power is still in the realms of ‘theoretical technical fixes’ and is unlikely to be practical within a generation. We do not yet know what environmental issues this will raise. Perhaps the most promising solution is to consider the power demands of society. Perhaps improved design, efficiency and public understanding of the demand side of the power resource could avoid the shortfall.

Clearly, the views of Professor Blowers may be criticised from the perspective that he is simply complaining about nuclear waste without describing what the pro-nuclear lobby would consider to be a viable alternative. As an interesting counterpoint, Stott (2005) describes the need for nuclear power, as a significant component of a mix of energy generation, in terms of the UK being self sufficient in terms of power generation. His argument rejects over-optimistic claims of the potential of the various renewable sources. In terms of risk, he attempts to put the safety record of the nuclear power industry into context with other risks we accept. He also emphasises the environmental cost of the various forms of renewable energy.

Professor Blowers made a high quality presentation using an unusual presentation style in that there was no computer based projection (well ok, there were three overhead projector slides). I have attended talks where some of the audience left after five minutes of no visual graphics. In this case there was no mass exodus and the audience remained attentive to the vibrant narrative until the end. It is certain that the nuclear energy debate will rage over a considerable time scale and it is unlikely that a generally acceptable solution to the power generation problem will emerge in the near future. It is therefore important to recognise the valuable contribution of Professor Blowers to provide such a useful overview of the nuclear waste issue and consequently to inform the debate.

Aidan Burton is a Senior Research Associate in School of Civil Engineering and Geosciences at Newcastle University

Philip Stott, 12 April 2005, Election 2005 “It's this simple: wind farms the size of London, or safe, clean nuclear plants” My big issue, The Times, p18.

About Andrew Blowers

Andrew Blowers OBE is Professor of Social Sciences (Planning) at the Open University. He has written several books on planning and political issues including The Limits of Power, Something in the Air, The International Politics of Radioactive Waste and Planning for a Sustainable Environment. He has co-edited the three volume series on Environmental Policy in and International Context and three volumes in the series Environment: Change, Contest and Response for the Open University.

For three decades he was a leading county councillor in Bedfordshire specialising in environmental and planning matters. He has been prominent in environmental policy making as a member of the Radioactive Waste Management Advisory Committee (1991-2004) and the Committee on Radioactive Waste Management (since 2003) and as an independent director of Nirex, the radioactive waste disposal company. In 2000 he was awarded the OBE for services to environmental protection.

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