Test of time

After three years of headscratching, the committee on radioactive waste management (CoRWM) has released its package of recommendations concerning what we should do with our nuclear waste.

It’s no surprise that there are no surprises. And after dismissing schemes ranging from blasting it into space or slipping it between cracks in the seabed and hoping for the best, we’re now a small step further along the very long road that will almost inevitably see the construction of long term, underground storage facilities somewhere in the UK.

The political, environmental and public challenges now are enormous: critics claim that even deep geological repositories cannot be safe, and the public will be extremely worried about the possibility of living near a nuclear dumping ground – which makes locating a facility difficult in a place as densely populated as the UK. But most importantly, such a scheme will also call for us to think about our nuclear legacy in a way that we have never been forced to in the past.

We live in a throwaway society, where our electronic devices are obsolete after a couple of years, where a well-designed vehicle may see 10 years’ service and where even critical civil structures aren’t realistically expected to last more than a few hundred years.

Yet those planning and working on a facility of this kind will have to design something that will maintain its structural integrity for the next 100,000 years. Consider that the ancient Egyptians were putting the finishing touches on the pyramids a trifling 6000 years ago and the scale of challenge is staggering. By the time one of these underground facilities comes to the end of its useful life it will be both ancient historical curiosity and yet still, hopefully, a fully functioning bit of 21st century engineering. Only time, and a very long time indeed, will tell.

Jon Excell

Features Editor