Make haste on waste

A nuclear waste forum has urged action over the UK’s long-term radioactive stockpile.


Specialists in nuclear waste technology this week again called for a speedy decision on the UK’s long-term strategy for storage of its stockpile of radioactive material.


A conference in London, called to discuss progress in the immobilisation and storage of waste, was told that nations around the world are now actively exploring suitable sites for a deep-storage facility capable of safely entombing the most hazardous material for tens of thousands of years.


The UK, however, is yet to make a decision on the best option for long-term disposal, with the Committee on Radioactive Waste Management (CoRWM) not due to report to the government until next year. Even then, it is unclear how quickly any progress on its recommendations will be made.


Prof Bill Lee of the Immobilisation Science Laboratory (ISL) at Sheffield University, which organised the conference, said progress was being made in developing more effective techniques and materials to render intermediate and high-level waste into stable forms that can be transported and stored.


Work underway at the ISL includes vitrifying waste in glass, encapsulating it in different types of cement and the ceramification of problematic radio-nuclides.


But Lee said research in areas such as long-term durability testing would be made easier by a clearer idea of the eventual destination of the UK’s waste stockpile.


‘We don’t know what sort of repository we’re going to have,’ said Lee, adding that this would help guide researchers in their experiments. ‘I think we need to know quite soon,’ he said.


Tim McEwen, a specialist in nuclear disposal sites who is involved in the development of proposed storage facilities in Finland and Yucca Mountain in the US, also lamented the UK’s slow progress.


McEwen said the UK, which has been debating for decades what to do with its waste, was now in danger of being overtaken by other countries in building a deep store. He said that even smaller nations with a lesser nuclear legacy might have a repository before us, adding ‘with sufficient political will it’s possible to store it here. It’s a case of someone getting their finger out.’


The experts’ comments echo recent criticism by the Lords science and technology committee, which said inability to decide on a storage strategy was clouding the entire debate over the future role of nuclear power in the UK.