Wasted words?

The question of how the UK will dispose of its nuclear waste has been brought into the spotlight once
again after a top adviser resigned from the body set up to find a solution. Helen Knight reports.

The Government has long faced criticism for stalling on the issue of the UK’s nuclear waste stockpile.

Nuclear energy is not a popular subject among voters at the best of times, so proposing to store highly radioactive material 300m or so below ground near their homes will be a hard sell.

If the UK had vast tracts of unpopulated land with the right geology for a deep storage facility people might be willing to take a back seat and allow engineers and scientists to make the decisions. But as one of the most population-dense countries in Europe, this is not likely to happen.

So how can government and industry get the right balance between consulting the public and making the right choice technically on something that will need to be stored safely underground for the next 100,000 years?

The issue is under the spotlight again following the resignation of Prof David Ball from the Committee on Radioactive Waste Management (CoRWM), the body set up to advise the government on the best option for disposing of the UK’s radioactive waste.

Ball, professor of risk management at Middlesex University, was particularly scathing of the committee’s decision to spend so long considering a number of ‘flaky’ options for disposing of the waste, such as firing it at the sun, before narrowing these down to the ‘bleeding obvious’, including deep disposal.

According to Ball, the desire to involve the public in such major decisions has led some bodies to completely exclude input from any technical experts. ‘Some of the people out there in the field who are actually putting these public engagement exercises into practice have read the message as one that says science has shot its bolt. And there is so much uncertainty involved with these decisions anyway that anybody’s opinion is as good as anybody else’s. So we are going to go and ask the public what to do with nuclear waste,’ he said.

The committee is not interested in the views of professionals, and is anti expertise of any kind, whether that be input from nuclear engineers, geologists, or economists, he said. ‘The pendulum has swung from one extreme to the other, and one of my fundamental arguments with CoRWM is that it has allowed that to happen,’ he claimed.

But Prof Bill Lee, who is director of the Immobilisation Science Laboratory at Sheffield University and is writing a book on nuclear waste storage with colleague Dr Michael Ojovan, said CoRWM is primarily a public perception exercise. ‘They are going through the processes of getting round the country and talking to different groups and communities about what would be a sensible thing to do with radioactive waste. I think that’s a good thing to do.’

Both the public and government ministers must be convinced of the need to store the waste in a stable environment, out of the reach of terrorists, for thousands of years to come, he said.

‘At the end of the day I don’t doubt they will decide it needs to go in an underground repository somewhere, and the whole process is merely a public perception exercise, just to convince the public that this is the right thing to do, and that’s OK. We have to bring the public on-board — and if this is one way of doing it then fine, but if it’s a delaying tactic then that’s not so good.’

How best to engage the public in the necessary decisions, given the highly technical nature of the issues involved, is another matter. In Finland and Sweden roadshows were carried out to explain the waste disposal process, including how deep below ground a repository is, what it looks like and what the safety measures are, said Prof Robert Pine, a fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering.

This open approach helped the Scandinavians to find suitable storage sites, and to persuade the technical community and local people that they had a robust facility design, he said. Finland finalised plans for a deep disposal site on the island of Olkiluoto in 2003, while the Swedish industry is carrying out research on a site below the sea outside the Forsmark nuclear power plant north of Stockholm.

‘The public need to see a transparent approach to radioactive waste disposal, for the purposes of confidence building, and I think if things are too secretive it raises suspicions, rightly or wrongly,’ he said.

In the UK many, if not the vast majority, of nuclear engineers feel that the technical solution is clear and has been backed up by research in the US, Finland, France and Canada, and it is now simply a case of finding the right site and putting the right packaging together to immobilise the waste. But finding a site will obviously be about more than simply choosing the most geologically suitable location, given that any preliminary investigation of an area is likely to provoke howls of protest from nearby residents.

‘I don’t think anyone is saying it’s impossible. It’s just a question of going through the right processes and eventually coming up with a technically satisfactory solution, and that does require experts. The difficult bit is how to persuade the public that the process that has been gone through is robust, and is not biased in any way — and obviously the people who end up with it in their backyard want to feel pretty safe,’ said Pine.

Persuading local people that the storage facility is safe will be a long and tortuous process, and as part of this effort the CoRWM had little choice but to at least consider some of the more ‘fringe’ options for dealing with waste, to demonstrate to the public that due process has been observed, said Pine. ‘I don’t think the committee really had a choice but to look at a number of different options, and as long as there is a trail taking you to the point where deep geological disposal is clearly the right way to go, then obviously the next step from there is to continue the process to find the suitable site.

‘But if you hadn’t gone through that process you’d find that local people who were confronted with the possibility of a repository being built in their location would ask about these other methods. There has to be a definitive document, almost certainly backed by the politicians, to say we are committed to finding a deep geological disposal location — because we’ve looked at all the other options and none of them are as safe and secure.’