Tough decisions on nuclear’s hazardous legacy

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Radioactive Waste in the UK: The 2010 Estimate of Radioactive Waste for Geological Disposal - .PDF file.

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Local authorities in Cumbira face the unenviable task today of voting on whether to allow investigations to continue for a geological nuclear waste repository, but the UK urgently needs such a facility

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.