LIVING WITH THE LEGACY
Nuclear waste storage and disposal in the UK is back in the news – and for once the news is good. Firstly, Parliament approved a change in the law which will make it easier to explore potential sites for an underground radioactive waste depository. Secondly, the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority outlined what it has in mind for dealing with current and future wastes and ultimately for implementing geological disposal.
I must declare an interest. Nearly 30 years ago I brokered an agreement which might have led to a radioactive waste depository actually operating by now. It was scuppered by a combination of penny pinching Government ministers who backed off at the first sign of opposition from anti-nuclear campaigners, over-ambitious and somewhat naïve geologists and the mutual suspicion of the electricity utilities and those dealing with the spent nuclear fuel from their reactors.
Successive failures in the search for a site have added to the impression that the nuclear energy industry doesn’t know what to do with the waste it creates and that there must be a lot of it. Both assumptions are wrong.
Do we know what to do with it? Of course we do. Safe methods for the final disposal of high level radioactive waste (which contains over 95 per cent of all the radioactivity present in the waste) are technically proven and the international consensus is that this should be through geological disposal. That has now been confirmed as policy by the main political parties in the UK.
Is there a great deal of it? No. The amount of radioactive material which has to be managed is very small compared with wastes produced by fossil fuel electricity generation and minuscule compared with the wastes produced by the chemical industry.
In the UK, as in every country with nuclear power, radioactive wastes comprise less than 1 per cent of total industrial toxic wastes, much of which remains hazardous indefinitely, which nuclear waste does not.
OF NATIONAL SIGNIFICANCE
The new piece of legislation making radioactive waste disposal more likely in the UK was approved and came into force on the day that Parliament was prorogued for the General Election. The timing was obviously the main reason why it passed virtually unnoticed, despite its controversial nature.
Potential sites for a disposal facility are now officially considered “nationally significant infrastructure projects” and so will be chosen by the Secretary of State for Energy, whoever that is. He or she will have to get advice from the planning inspectorate but will not be bound by the recommendation. And local councils and communities can object to details of the development but cannot stop it altogether.
The Order approved by Parliament makes it clear that what is being contemplated is geological investigation work, borehole drilling and the like, necessary for a radioactive waste disposal facility to be constructed. The Order makes it very clear that what we are talking about is disposal not managed storage.
The Order states: “The main purpose of the facility is expected to be the final disposal of radioactive waste. The part of the facility where radioactive waste is to be disposed of is expected to be constructed at a depth of at least 200 metres beneath the surface of the ground or seabed.
“The natural environment which surrounds the facility is expected to act, in combination with any engineered measures, to inhibit the transit of radionuclides from the part of the facility where radioactive waste is to be disposed of to the surface.”
It is significant that Labour abstained in the vote on the new piece of legislation, indicating that if it forms the next Government or leads a coalition it will not want to reverse the change of rules. The reason for this is obvious – the main political parties now recognise the need for a nuclear renaissance and are sorting out any problems which might inhibit it.
It has taken something like 50 years to get to the stage we’ve now reached – five decades of muddle, obfuscation and short term political decision-making. In this Newsletter I will try to describe some of the inexplicable events which have led to such an inordinate delay.
RADIOACTIVE WASTE – WHAT IT IS – AND WHAT IT ISN’T
If you use uranium or a uranium and plutonium mix to manufacture nuclear fuel elements from which you can generate electricity you will produce waste products during the generation process and those waste products have to be managed.
You can treat the used nuclear fuel elements as a resource, which I believe it
is, or simply as 100 per cent waste. So how does the waste arise?
Uranium fuel rods spend up to seven years inside the reactor producing the heat to generate electricity. When the rods are taken out of the reactor they have changed.
They now consist of unused uranium, newly formed plutonium and the true waste products of the system. In volume terms the unused uranium represents 97 per cent of what comes out of the reactor, between 0.1 per cent and 1 per cent is the plutonium which has been formed and around 2 to 3 per cent is the waste.
If you choose to treat the spent, or unused fuel, as a resource then you separate the three streams out, using a chemical process called reprocessing, which could just as easily be called recycling, a far more environmentally friendly term. We already use recovered uranium and plutonium to make new fuel rods, confirming their status as a resource.
WHERE IT ALL BEGAN
In a sense the UK chose to treat spent nuclear fuel rods as a resource the moment it was decided we had to have the atom bomb in the 1940s, when the Second World War was still raging. To get it we needed plutonium (a more potent plutonium than that used in the nuclear electricity generation process incidentally) and to get that we needed to reprocess nuclear fuel elements.
I think it’s fair to say that many of the problems which have bedevilled radioactive waste management in the UK over the years – or the public’s perception of how it is managed – can be traced back to the civil nuclear energy industry’s roots in the defence programme.
The most obvious consequence of the rush to get to the bomb was the feeling it
created that any potential threat to the environment could largely be ignored,
if it was even recognised as a threat, as a much greater threat was posed by
our enemies, particularly the Germans. Given the need for speed it was also
decided that the longer-term financial consequence of managing radioactive
waste streams was something which could be left to a later date.
As far as cost was concerned the Government would provide – or so it was thought. After all, electricity supply, defence and a burgeoning civil nuclear energy sector were all State-owned. Haggling over who paid for what was regarded as somewhat unseemly.
The situation was regularised more than 50 years ago. Nuclear became and remains the only source of electricity to provide for its environmental consequences in its current price. A provision of about 4% for decommissioning and waste management is made.
Although substantial, the Ministry of Defence’s nuclear liabilities are significantly smaller than the civil nuclear liabilities. The MOD’s radioactive wastes account for less than 1.5% (by volume) and 0.01% (by radioactivity) of the UK total. Getting the MoD to pay for its share of radioactive waste to be managed was never easy, however.
Having ducked the issue of what to do with radioactive waste for decades, other than store it at Sellafield in conditions which too often led to the material deteriorating, it was difficult to winkle the funds out of any branch of Government which insisted it had a role to play.
NO BOUQUET FOR FLOWERS
The developing problem of solid radioactive waste management and disposal was first drawn to public attention nearly thirty years ago in the Sixth Report of the Royal Commission on Environment Pollution, the so-called Flowers Report. This report, which appeared in 1976, caused considerable consternation.
Not only was it highly critical of what was happening – or not happening – Sir Brian Flowers (later Lord Flowers), the Commission’s Chairman, was a highly respected member of the Board of the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA).The UKAEA was responsible for Sellafield and for the waste stored there for much of the relevant time.
There was a feeling among the directors of the newly formed British Nuclear Fuels (BNFL) which I had just joined, that it was a bit much for Flowers to spring his report on them, a report which concentrated on the need to find a way of disposing of high level waste, the most difficult waste to handle, not only because of the high radiation levels but because it was stored as a liquid.
Flowers insisted that storing it as a liquid, with the obvious risk of a leak, was not a long-term solution. The Royal Commission called for more scientific research on the solidification of HLW and 15 years later (which hardly reflects the sense of urgency called for in the Flowers Report) the Windscale Vitrification Plant at Sellafield started to operate. In this plant the liquid waste is mixed with molten glass and allowed to cool inside a stainless steel container, forming a solid block.
The Flowers Report also recommended that there should be a substantial
programme of research into the disposal of solidified High Level Waste,
probably in underground geological formations, and some work was done on this
as an immediate response to the report. But not much.
In 1977 the UKAEA, acting as agent for the Department of the Environment, intended to begin testing the retention characteristics of hard rock.
In the event the HLW generic disposal site investigation programme, as it was called, had only reached the stage of planning permission being sought for test drilling in various parts of the country when the programme was abruptly cancelled because of public opposition, setting a pattern which has persisted to this day. The anti-nuclear fraternity are certain to fight the latest piece of legislation tooth and nail.
At the end of 1981 the Government announced a change in policy because of the clamour from the Greens. It said that it had decided that there was no need for early exploratory drilling for the disposal of HLW after all. All outstanding planning applications were therefore dismissed and others which were pending were withdrawn.
My BNFL colleagues were delighted with the Government’s decision as they had never really accepted the Flowers analysis of the problem. They argued that the best and most practical option, on cost as well as environment grounds was for HLW to be stored at Sellafield for at least 50 years, to allow it to cool. In the event much of it is going to be in store for much longer than that.
THE FOUR SITES SAGA
Having put a stop to the attempts to look for a suitable disposal site for High Level Waste the Government announced that “priority” would be given to the disposal of Intermediate Level Waste and Low Level Waste. It obviously hoped that there would be less public opposition to the disposal of these less-active products. Fat chance.
I remember telling the BNFL Board at the time that people with no real feel for the radiological significance of the different waste categories would be concerned about the disposal of any radioactive waste near where they lived.
Around this time Nirex came up with the remarkable judgement that nearly a third of the British landmass potentially had the right geology for a repository and talked of no fewer than 500 sites showing some promise. To me that represented 500 communities which had probably not bothered very much about nuclear power until then becoming stridently anti-nuclear. The 500 sites were never named, thank goodness.
To complicate matters further the practice of dumping large items such as boilers in the deep sea was abandoned after protests by the National Union of Seamen and an offer by ICI to make a disused anhydrite mine at its Billingham site available for investigation was hastily withdrawn by ICI after local protests.
Then BNFL forced through an eight-fold increase in its charges for the use of the LLW disposal site at Drigg. This enabled it to improve the disposal regime there and encouraged its customers to segregate materials more carefully.
The electricity utilites were furious and Nirex saw this as an opportunity. It started to investigate land owned by one of the utilities, the Central Electricity Generating Board, at Elstow in Bedfordshire as a possible site for the shallow burial of Low Level Waste and short-lived Intermediate Level Waste. It was clearly an attempt to create an alternative to Drigg.
Later three further locations were added to the Nirex investigation programme – Bradwell in Essex, Fulbeck in Lincolnshire and Killingholme in Humberside.
This marked the beginning of what came to be known within the nuclear industry as “The Four Sites Saga,” a take on the “The Forsyte Saga” television series.
The whole business was getting out of hand, it seemed to me, and I began to express the view within BNFL that a solution to the waste management problem – whether it was the disposal of high, intermediate or low level waste – would only be found in or near Sellafield or close to the UKAEA establishment at Dounreay on the remote north western coast of Scotland.
The communities of these two areas were heavily dependent on the nuclear industry and more familiar with its real, rather than imagined, dangers. They might therefore be expected to accept what other regions would regard as an environmental blight.
Although it was known that I was out of sympathy with the Nirex investigation programme at the four potential sites (or perhaps because I was critical of what was going on) I was nominated by BNFL to the Board of Nirex, a company whose scatter gun approach to finding a disposal site was damaging the public’s perception of the nuclear industry.
With the knowledge and agreement of the BNFL Board (but not that of Nirex) I began to hoold informal discussions with the principal political players in Cumbria, Labour and Conservative. At a series of meetings I began to sow the seeds.
I pointed out that well over half of the waste destined for a repository was being stored on the surface at Sellafield. Even if the nuclear power programme waas abandoned, this waste would still be there and have to be dealt with. I also argeud that unless a repository was developed there must be a threat to the future of reprocessing at Sellafield, the mainstay of the West Cumbrian economy.
The politicians took my arguments well and we moved on to what Cumbria might
get out of any repository development by way of planning gain and employment,
There were obvious signs that there was a chance of them accepting the
project. Then things started to unravel, beginning with the Four Sites Saga.
The four sites were all in constituencies held by Conservative MPs and there was a General Election in the offing. The activities of Nirex became a major issue during the campaign and a bare six weeks before the Election the four sites plan was kicked into touch, under instruction from on high although it was presented as a Nirex decision.
The Labour party politicians involved in my discussions were furious. The name of Nirex was mud in the area, but the electricity utilities insisted that if BNFL went ahead with its geological investigation work it must be as agent for Nirex. The utilities were clearly concerned that if BNFL was in charge their radioactive management costs would rise again.
The situation was made even worse when BNFL was told by Government that if
planning gain funds were made available in Cumbria central government funding
at the same level would be withdrawn. That was the final straw as far as my
Cumbrian contacts were concerned. My attempt to get geological investigations under way at or near Sellafield had failed, as so many others have done over the years.
NOW FOR THE REAL WORK
It’s one thing for the politicians to ease the way towards the development of a waste disposal site but the real work now begins. For a start the so-called legacy material held at Sellafield will have to be sorted out before disposing of it can even be conemplated. That is down to the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA), now back in charge of the project and back in State ownership.
At the end of the month the NDA published its latest business plan, setting
out its anticipated income and expenditure during the next financial year. The
plan also includes a 20-year overview of objectives it is working towards and
takes a more detailed look at key activities over the next three years.
The NDA’s total planned expenditure for 2015-16 is £3.3 billion, of which £2.1 billion will be funded by the UK Government and £1.2 billion by income from commercial operations.
Planned expenditure on site programmes will be £2.9 billion while non-site expenditure is expected to be £190 million. This non-site expenditure includes skills development, socio-economic spending, research and development, insurance and pension costs, fees to site licence companies, NDA operating costs “and implementing geological disposal.”
“Within affordability and funding allocation restraints, we will seek to maintain progress and maximise value for money,” NDA said. “We will do this by focusing on the highest hazards and risks, whilst ensuring that safe, secure and environmentally responsible site operations are maintained across our estate.
Not surprisingly, activities at Sellafield will account for more than half of expenditure – £1.9 billion and will mainly focus on the redundant legacy storage ponds and silo facilities. The work programme includes the removal of early spent nuclear fuel, sludge and solid material and their treatment and storage.
This month we were given a timely reminder of just how long some of the
material being recovered has been stored in ponds at Sellafield – and that it
isn’t all a consequence of nuclear electricity generation. The recovery
technique now being deployed involves the use of miniature submarines.
The submarines are being used to recover cobalt cartridges dating back to the
1950s. The cartridges were used for producing isotopes for medical and industrial applications and these particular cartridges were irradiated in the early Magnox reactors at Calder Hall and Chapelcross. There are also a small number of cobalt isotopes which were discharged from the Windscale Pile reactors when they were shut down after the Windscale fire in 1957.
The isotopes produced using the cartridges had a variety of medical and industrial purposes, including external beam radiotherapy, sterilisation of food and weld integrity radiographs.
The cartridges are stored underwater in open top skips and Sellafield Ltd is using the remotely operated mini submarines to retrieve the individual cartridges, which are one metre long and weigh around 6kg. The cartridges are being repackaged, The Remotely Operated Vehicles were developed to deal with underwater, hazardous problems and potential uses for them at Sellafield could include raising fuel skips and large pieces of equipment from the bottom of the legacy ponds where their cranes cannot reach.
The ten Magnox and two research sites owned by NDA will account for some £602
million in spending. Key activities will include the extension of electricity
generation at Wylfa until December this year, defueling at Oldbury and taking
Bradwell and Trawsfynydd into early care and maintenance.
At Dounreay, where £209 million will be spent on activities including the decontamination of the prototype fast reactor pool, completion of new fuel characterisation facilities and the complete removal of all fuels from the fast reactor.