Nuclear clean up

For the UK to solely rely on the existing Drigg nuclear disposal site alone as a long-term management solution for ‘low activity wastes’ is misplaced, according to two new reports from RWMAC.

A central finding of two new reports from The Radioactive Waste Management Advisory Committee (RWMAC) state that for the UK to solely rely on the existing Drigg nuclear disposal site, two miles south of Sellafield, alone as a long-term management solution for ‘low activity wastes’ is misplaced. The site is filling up and the reports indicate that additional capacity will be required.

Volumes of low activity waste are not accurately reported, partly because of uncertainty about how they are treated in the UK Radioactive Waste Inventory and partly in the hope that disposal routes other than Drigg will ultimately be identified for the more lightly contaminated of these wastes.

The RWMAC, an independent body of experts, found that although other routes exist in principle (including incineration, use of landfill and other forms of burial) they are not widely available in practice and are likely to diminish further as a result of environmental legislation.

RWMAC recommends that the Government should consider whether a Radioactive Materials Inventory is needed – in order to take fuller account of all existing and potential nuclear liabilities.

The number of nuclear plants being decommissioned, currently and in the near future, will result in very large amounts of waste. RWMAC warns that unless sensible and robust solutions can be found ‘huge amounts of lightly contaminated soil and rubble cleared from nuclear sites might have to be transported across the UK, only to have to be buried elsewhere, all at great public cost. This would merely be moving the problem, not solving it.’

Professor Charles Curtis, the RWMAC Chairman, said: ‘These studies raise issues of real concern. As the decommissioning and clean up of closed nuclear plants continues, the need to assess the extent of liabilities and plan the management of wastes becomes increasingly important. Our report concludes that improvements are needed in estimating and recording volumes of low activity wastes.’

‘We also believe that a Radioactive Materials Inventory would help considerably in future planning as it could then include some more active materials, such as uranium, plutonium and spent nuclear fuel that are currently not included as wastes,’ he added.

The first of the two reports addresses a range of wastes which are highly diverse in nature and in the amount of radioactivity they contain. They include waste which is disposed of to the Drigg facility in Cumbria, the UK’s only disposal route for low level radioactive waste (which is at the upper end of the low activity range) and less active wastes from the decommissioning of nuclear facilities and the remediation of radioactively contaminated ground.

The other report examines the UK Radioactive Waste Inventory, a Government-sponsored database of current and forecasted wastes, including what it covers and how it is compiled. RWMAC found that the current Inventory gives little indication of the actual or potential inventory of low activity wastes.

Copies of the reports are available from: DEFRA Publications, Admail 6000, London SW1A 2XX. Each one costs £10.

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