Nuclear waste not, want not

The shape of the UK’s nuclear future is slowly beginning to emerge. A previously confidential report released alongside the government’s statement on nuclear energy reveals a list of sites deemed the most suitable to host a new generation of nuclear power stations.

It came as little surprise to anyone that the parts of the UK thought most conducive to a shiny new nuclear generator are those currently mucking along with an increasingly shabby old one.

The names of the nuclear future are very likely to be familiar from its past and present — the likes of Hinkley Point, Sizewell, or Dungeness. The report — prepared by consultants for the DTI — is not government policy, but there are many compelling reasons to site nuclear new-build on the remains of the old.

The most compelling of all is surely the likely level of acceptance by the local communities concerned.

Where a nuclear plant already exists, the local population will in many cases have grown up in its shadow. They may work there themselves, or if not will probably know someone who does, and will certainly share in the economic spin-off benefits it brings.

In this context, upgrading to the latest nuclear technology will most likely be seen as a positive benefit, or at least viewed neutrally.

The same would certainly not be true if a decision were made to build a plant in an area that previously considered itself nuclear-free. If the good people of, for example, Chichester, were told that they would soon be part of the nuclear family the uproar would be deafening.

So it is possible to imagine a reasonably painless transition from nuclear past to future as far as the power plant network is concerned. However, the same cannot be said of another, absolutely crucial, piece of the nuclear jigsaw.

This is the repository that will store the UK’s most dangerous nuclear waste for thousands of years. We don’t have one of those at the moment, and it has got to go somewhere.

The government’s Committee on Radioactive Waste Management hopes that wherever the repository ends up, the local community will welcome it with open arms, seduced by a mixture of jobs, subsidies, local regeneration and a place in the history books.

There might be some areas that fit the bill. It is also possible that one of the willing areas will have the right type of geology.

But you cannot help but feel that the repository — which is an indispensable element of our nuclear future — will go down in history as one of the most controversial engineering projects ever undertaken in the UK.

Andrew Lee, editor