It is impossible not to be left feeling slightly dizzy when listening to engineers and scientists discussing the issue of what to do with the UK’s stockpile of nuclear waste.
Not by the horribly dangerous nature of the waste itself (which goes without saying) or even the technical challenges of dealing with it, but by the mind-boggling timescales involved.
Engineers working on a new mobile phone might realistically expect the results of their labours to be around for two or three years before being superseded. A well-designed car model may see 10 years’ service. Those working on large structures — buildings, roads, bridges — will have the satisfaction of knowing they have had a hand in something that will probably outlive them, and even their grandchildren.
But the nuclear waste question brings a whole new dimension to the phrase ‘stand the test of time’.
For those examining the options for the disposal of the most dangerous forms of radioactive material, 1,000 years is a mere starting point. They are trying to assess what is needed to provide an effective barrier to the leakage of hazardous radionuclides into the environment some 100,000 years into the future, when our own present-day society will seem positively prehistoric to those inhabiting the Earth.
The issue of nuclear waste disposal is, of course, of immediate and pressing importance.
It is instructive to contrast the (very) long view of the nuclear disposal community’s scientists and engineers with the seeming impossibility of getting a decision out of the political powers-that-be. A deep, long-term disposal facility seems the only logical answer to the waste issue for the UK and other nations with nuclear programmes. What are the alternatives? To leave it festering on the surface indefinitely until, as is inevitable at some point, a disaster occurs as a result of accident or malicious intent? To fire it into space? Absurd — what goes up can come down.
As other countries have recognised, the US, Finland and France among them, properly managed deep storage is the least worst option for dealing with our nuclear legacy. But a report on the UK’s options is not expected until next year at the earliest, and the nuclear engineering community is not holding its breath over any quick decisions after that.
In the meantime — and rightly — nuclear power is moving back on to the agenda as a means of providing abundant emissions-free energy in the future. The industry is keen to resolve the waste issue, and the technological know-how to do so is there. The barrier most often cited is that of public acceptability. But making hard choices and then selling them to the public is the job of politicians. That’s what we pay them for.
It’s time to make a decision on deep disposal and give the nuclear industry a chance to face the next 100 years, never mind the next 100,000, with some degree of certainty.