According to the UK’s Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA), the estimated cost of cleaning up the waste from 20th-century nuclear power plants currently stands at £131bn. What’s more, this figure does not include the construction of a geological disposal facility (GDF), a vast underground storage space for waste which was first suggested nearly 50 years ago but which has yet to even find a viable location.
In recent weeks, however, the story has been about the expansion of new nuclear, with the prime minister announcing a target of 25 per cent nuclear in the UK’s energy mix (it currently stands at 16 per cent, with several plants nearing end-of-service). Westminster’s Nuclear All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) also published a roadmap calling for 15GW of new nuclear generation by 2035 and 30GW by 2050, comprised of both large-scale plants of the Hinkley C-scale alongside small modular reactors (SMRs) being developed by a Rolls-Royce-led consortium.
According to the NDA, the spent fuel from this coming generation of plants will not be cool enough to be moved to a GDF – if one is ever built – for 140 years, further adding to the UK’s nuclear waste disposal problem. So not only is the UK struggling to deal with its existing waste on a mass scale, in seeking to meet its future energy demands and enable the net zero transition, it will create enormous amounts of high-level waste for which there is currently no strategy to deal with.
The lack of clarity on what the back end of this new nuclear cycle looks like has led some experts to call for a pause in new builds until a firm strategy is in place: one that addresses both the legacy waste from the magnox and gas-cooled reactors of the 20th century as well as the inevitable high-level waste that will accompany the new breed of pressurised water reactors.
“Despite 65 years of using nuclear power in Britain, we are still, at best, decades away from having facilities to safely dispose of the waste,” Steve Thomas, a professor of energy policy at the University of Greenwich, said in a recent Guardian article. “Until we know this can be done, it is premature to embark on a major new programme of nuclear power plants.”
In the same piece, Claire Corkhill, a professor of nuclear material degradation at the University of Sheffield and a member of the Committee on Radioactive Waste Management, said: “In my personal view, I do not think we should be building any new nuclear reactors until we have a geological disposal facility available…These are completely different to previous reactors and we are at a very early stage of understanding how to deal with the waste.”
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