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Tough decisions on nuclear's hazardous legacy

Three local authorities in Cumbria have an unenviable task today. Members of Cumbria County Council and Allerdale and Copeland Borough Councils are to vote on whether to allow investigations into the suitability of their areas for a geological depository for medium- and high-level nuclear waste. If these investigations are successful, and local residents agree, then construction of the repository could begin by 2025.

Although this is still a preliminary stage of the respository process, the council members must feel like they are facing an awesome responsibility. The repository, which will be up to a kilometre below ground, will have to hold nuclear waste from the UK’s present and past, including some of the most toxic substances in existence, for thousands of years.

Because of the UK’s pioneer status as a nuclear nation, some of this waste comes from the days of nuclear experimentation. It’s poorly characterised and its properties aren’t well understood (although the phrase ‘extremely nasty, be really careful’ probably covers it). Nuclear waste and spent fuel from modern facilities is much better understood and therefore easier to handle, but is still highly hazardous.

Geological disposal is sometimes unfairly described as ‘throw it down a hole and forget about it.’ In fact, it’s the opposite — you have to place it very, very carefully in a hole and remember it’s there (we covered the engineering issues around building a deep repository in a feature that can be read here).  It might seem like a crude way to dispose of waste. However, to echo Winston Churchill’s memorable description of democracy, it probably is a pretty bad way to do it, but it’s better than all the others.

You can’t blast nuclear waste into space: the risk of it blowing up on the launchpad are too great. You can’t throw it into the sea: we don’t understand enough about the ecosystems to know what that might do. The only other option is to leave it where it is — where, after all, it has been stored safely since the 1950s — but with concerns about security and the sheer length of time it needs to be stored before its radioactivity has dissipated, is this really a good idea?

We do understand a great deal about geology, and its ability to safely encapsulate nuclear waste. Geologists are confident in their science’s ability to predict how radioactive materials might percolate through different types of rock and water in the event that it escapes from its confinement, and the engineers working on rendering the waste safe to move — a process which can involve entombing it within cement blocks or solifying molten glass around it, and shielding it within jackets of metal and other substances — are working to confirm that such an escape would be extremely unlikely (you can read about some of the work taking place in this area in this interview with the head of the National Nuclear Laboratory).

So it’s a difficult task facing the Cumbrian councils today, but it’s one that is necessary. Allerdale and Copeland are the only councils in the UK who are still in the running to host the repository — Dungeness withdrew last year because of residents’ opposition — so if both authorities vote against, the whole process will have to begin again because the UK needs a repository. It’s not only vital for the new build nuclear facilities which will begin to take shape next year, but also for the legacy of waste we’ve built up over the past half-century. It might seem a shame — it is a shame — but it’s the only safe, sane way to keep the hazardous legacy of this technology away from the daily lives of future generations.

Readers' comments (21)

  • Combine this with Fracking just across the fells? Jolly good!

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  • We aren't short of redundant coal mines, are none of these of any use?

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  • Funny how they never checked London for suitability of dumping this poison isn't it?

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  • Its easy to be fearful of a hazardous subject that you don't fully understand. Competent scientists and engineers will make this happen, if allowed.

    "That's easy for you to say, you live at the other end of the country" I hear cried back.

    I do live in Cornwall, which has the highest background radiation in the country. But radioactive gases percolated through the granite and into many homes here. I doubt that even normal Cornish radiation levels will be experienced, if its stored 1km underground. Others will know for sure.

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  • The plans for the repository do indeed set background levels below those experienced under normal circumstances in Cornwall. — SN

  • Not long ago the USA stopped a project of hollowing out a mountain to contain waste after spending many years and $100's million and I have yet to read what their alternative storage sites are. We have to assume that there are alternative sites as the Americans have many more nuclear generators than us so it has to go somewhere. Can we not use their expertise and knowledge on safe locations which we may be able to adapt to our geological conditions.
    It is an absolute certainty that we will need a large storage facility as all of the wind farms, wave machines and solar panels existing and planned will not cope with the electricity demands of the near future.

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  • Once again a serious issue is subject to the level of personal prejudices, rather than the more serious consideration and responses required.

    The expert engineers who are proposing this depository will have had to do many years of research and justification to put up such a proposal.

    Unlike the seconds, that the amateur speaking for the common good or voice of the public, take to reach their consideration.

    There are natural caves that have remained intact for millennia, and the site chosen is no doubt as stable at the current research can provide.

    The need is no doubt. Plutonium and its waste products need to be stored in security for years to come, and an underground site is about as safe as they come, stored in the stability of the UK society.

    The building and operation of the storage facility will provide many jobs for the local population for miles around and for years to come. This is another important consideration if you understand the huge loss of jobs in and around the sites under consideration.

    This is an essential need, and the government should give its full backing to a storage facility agreed today. No more fudges or faceless promises.

    Let’s just get on with it today.

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  • Above ground storage would continue jobs at Sellafield for thousands of years and avoid the 'bury and forget' desire of ye olde nuclear industry. Heartening to see the world now generates more electricty from solar/wind together than nuclear...that is the future

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  • The yucca mountain project was stopped for political reasons, not technical or safety reasons.

    It is a shame that the US cannot be a better role model in the treatment, handling, and disposal of nuclear waste as they are arguably the true pioneer nuclear nation

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  • Does anybody seriously think that it is possible to build a facility, in which huge amounts of nuclear waste can be safely kept during thousands of years, until its radioactive emissions decrease to a minimum?

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  • Yes; Finland and Sweden are very confident, as are the UK engineers who have been working on it.

  • It beggars belief that there is not a single news report mentioning the PRISM reactor, which is sure to be approved within months, for burning our plutonium stockpile. This reactor will not only solve the world's largest proliferation risk within 5 years, but it will carry on generating enough electricity to supply 750,000 people for a further 50 or 60 years.

    The technology is here and now! GE Hitachi have it designed and ready for modular factory-build. It could be licensed here in 5 years, then manufactured, built and commissioned 5 years after that.

    All of Sellafield's and the rest of the UK's energy resource (some people unknowingly or duplicitously call it nuclear waste) can be used as fuel in these reactors and we have enough of it to power the UK for 500 years. The minuscule amount of left-over waste from these reactors, decays to background radiation levels in 300 years - capable of being easily, cheaply and safely stored.

    PRISM reactors are hundreds of times safer than the reactors now being planned for our 16 GW of 'New Nuclear. They are inherently safe - they shut down according to the laws of physics, without human intervention, even under accident conditions such as those seen at Three Mile Island and Fukushima.

    All we need is a visionary Prime Minister and we could lead the world into the inevitable era of the fast breeder reactor. This decision is as near a no-brainer as any political decision could ever be.

    It's about time the news media fulfilled its public duty by giving as much air-time or space to PRISM reactors as it does to anti-nuclear propaganda, yesterday's nuclear technology, in the form of PWR/BWR reactors and ineffectual renewables.

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  • We have, in fact, covered this:

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