SONE Newsletter 273 - February 2022

Posted by Wade Allison on 3 February 2022 in Newsletters

Tagged with: Adrian Bull, Allison Macfarlane, Fukushima, Neville Chamberlain, Nuclear waste, Plutonium, Three Mile Island, Uranium.

First, as promised, two opposing views on whether large sums should be spent on nuclear waste

The Management of Nuclear Waste in the UK

Neville Chamberlain, MBE, Chairman of SONE,
CEO, BNFL (1986-1996)

No industry knows more about its waste than the nuclear industry. Yet no industry has been more pilloried about its waste or seen its very survival more threatened by concerns about its waste. Those opposed to nuclear energy have played on the fear of something that cannot be seen – radiation – and used that fear to excite an irrational hostility to what, with a more favourable image could be the planet’s saviour against climate change.

So what are these wastes and how can they be managed effectively, safely and without great cost?

Customarily, solid nuclear wastes are grouped into three major categories, viz. LOW level waste, MEDIUM level waste and HIGH level waste.

LOW level waste is usually items which have come into contact with radioactive matter in the course of nuclear processes. Typically, this will include works clothing and equipment used by the industrial workers who deal radioactive materials such as uranic compounds. Each item of LOW level waste will present no hazard but collected together and habitually exposed to an individual could result in a potentially harmful occupational dose. Prudence suggests that this waste should be properly managed with a proportionate regime to ensure that it remains in a managed long term storage facility where its indiscriminate release to the environment or exposure to people would be avoided. In practice this regime used to amount to a private rubbish tip in Cumbria near to Sellafield (Drigg) but this was upgraded in the 1990’s to a more engineered facility with the waste sealed in heavy steel transport containers and comprehensive monitoring systems to check that nothing untoward was happening to the waste. These changes did incur a significant cost to those wishing to dispose of LOW level waste and this encouraged them to take the effort to sort out that waste which was not at all contaminated. The resultant reduction in material sent to the disposal facility, coupled with the extra capacity created by the engineering of containment, meant that the only such facility in the UK continues in service long after its predicted “Full” date!

At the other end of the scale, we have HIGH level waste which is, typically, the separated fission products from spent nuclear fuel. During the fission process in nuclear fuel inside a running reactor, the highly radioactive fission products accumulate, slowing down the nuclear process until the used fuel has to be replaced with fresh fuel. The spent fuel elements have historically been dismantled and the fission products separated by chemical processes, releasing the unused uranium for recycling and the newly formed plutonium to form a new fuel. The separated fission products are then solidified in strong steel drums which are weld sealed and placed in a purpose-built long term storage building, with thick radiation-absorbing walls. The fission products can then quietly decay, their radiation emissions gradually declining.

The bits of the used fuel which were not part of the uranium material itself, the enclosing fuel can and support struts and caps are very contaminated by the uranic and other material from the fuel. While not as radioactive as the fuel rod or pellets themselves, this cladding and other material is too contaminated to be classed as LOW level waste and is typically referred to as MEDIUM level waste. This is encased in a cement mix inside more steel drums which are sealed and placed in another long-term storage building.

There are other MEDIUM level wastes such as plutonium contaminated material which do not present the same radiation hazard as fission products but which, nevertheless, require the same disposal process as the fuel cladding material. More MEDIUM level waste is produced when heavily contaminated process equipment is dismantled and when liquid wastes are treated.

It should be noted that all radioactive waste material is managed along the principles of “Separation, immobilisation, encapsulation” and then storage in a managed, monitored (and retrievable) system. The retrievability gives future generations the opportunity, if it so wishes, to improve the storage or even to use the material for another purpose.

The above approach to managing spent nuclear fuel envisages recycling the used fuel. There is a strong lobby against this approach. It seems that this objection is because of the weapons association with plutonium. This of course ignores the energy potential of plutonium as a fuel. Moreover, “Burning it” is perhaps the most secure way of ensuring that no-one can use it for weapons purposes.

Nevertheless, there are those who often refer to spent nuclear fuel as “nuclear waste” thus effectively creating yet another category of waste and one which is harder to manage since it is not “material” but rather a collection of engineered units comprising different elements with differing corrosion and reaction characteristics. Moreover, advocates of direct disposal of spent nuclear fuel usually advocate deep geological disposal of the “waste”. This is presumably to discourage our stupid descendants from retrieving the material for evil purposes or from stumbling upon the material and damaging themselves. Some environmentalists, however, are nervous of this concept because they recognise that perhaps we may not get the deep geological concept quite right and will regret not being able to put it right. It denies future generations the opportunity to improve on what we do as mentioned above.

However, in the UK we no longer have the option to recycle spent fuel since the Government’s decision to shut down our only reprocessing plant, THORP, without waiting to see if an alternative is really available. (This decision also, incidentally, deprived the UK of considerable overseas earning opportunities and economic benefits to Cumbria.)

One thing is indisputable. After some five decades of working on it we seem to be no nearer defining an acceptable system of direct disposal. Government continues to order new programmes of work which no doubt will:

  • give the impression that Government is doing something (without actually making any controversial decisions)

  • keep alive the careers of many scientists and engineers (particularly geologists)

  • perpetuate the myth that the industry doesn’t know what to do with its waste

  • ensure that further punitive costs are added to the nuclear bill.

All of which is hardly helpful to the prospects for new nuclear energy.

There is a compromise solution being worked on by some who are really trying to solve the problem. That is to separate out the fission products from spent fuel and leave the remaining uranium and the plutonium mixed together. This mixture is then enhanced with some fresh enriched uranium and is turned into new fuel elements.

Meanwhile, the only demonstrated effective system of managing spent nuclear fuel, reprocessing and recycling, has been discontinued in the UK and spent fuel is accumulating in temporary storage ponds.

The costs and dithering go on! And the earth, like Rome, is burning!

The Case for Funding Research into Nuclear Waste

Adrian Bull MBE
Chair in Nuclear Energy and Society
Dalton Nuclear Institute at The University of Manchester
Discipline Lead for Applied Social Research
for the RWM-funded Research Support Office

There are those who believe the “problem” of nuclear waste is solved, as we already have technology available to package nuclear waste, dig large holes underground and seal them up again.

However this view fails to recognise the complexity of the situation, underpinned by the fact that nuclear waste disposal in a democratic country, such as the UK, is as much a societal challenge as a technical one. If not more so.

As such, any community which may be expected to host a permanent waste store will – quite rightly – expect the time and opportunity to learn about the details of the project and air its opinions as part of the decision-making process.

Not only that – the UK Government has gone further with its own plans for a Geological Disposal Facility (GDF), and committed that - before the repository is built - there must be a legally binding “test of public opinion” within the community to confirm that they wish to accept it.

Let’s consider for a moment what that means in simple terms. The Government is asking a community to volunteer to take hazardous material, and store it in within a labyrinthine network of man-made caves and tunnels deep beneath their community, or out towards the sea, starting from an on-land entry location. In return the community get some money. And they get to host that material beneath their feet…. well… for ever! That places a huge responsibility on the generation making that decision. Once made – it is irreversible. The descendants of today’s decision makers (should a community ultimately agree to the proposal) will have no chance to have their own views heard. Nor – as the generations go on - are they guaranteed any of the money, or its beneficial legacy. They just get to have nuclear waste stored for ever under their homes, farms, schools, hospitals and countryside.

One thing communities are likely to expect from the developers of such facilities is that they are seen to be using the very latest and best technology for the purpose. We all know how technology can evolve rapidly (you only need to watch a 90s TV drama to see how cars or mobile phones have changed in a generation). So the evolution of technology over the timeframes of constructing, operating and closing a waste disposal facility (likely to be many decades in total) will be significant.

All of this leads me to take an opposing view to Neville on the value of funding research into nuclear waste. Whilst the early part of Neville’s paper on nuclear waste management is clear and accurate, I disagree with his comments that:

  • Government continues to order new programmes of work which no doubt give the impression that Government is doing something (without actually making any controversial decisions)

  • keep alive the careers of many scientists and engineers (particularly geologists)

  • perpetuate the myth that the industry doesn’t know what to do with its waste

  • ensure that further punitive costs are added to the nuclear bill.

Let’s take those comments in turn.

Is Government pretending to make progress without actually making any decisions?

The evidence is in fact the opposite. This particular attempt to deliver a GDF has got further than any previous one. As I write (late January 2022), the community of Theddlethorpe in Lincolnshire has formed a Working Group to examine the possibility of participation in the GDF process, and three other communities – all in West Cumbria – have gone a step further and established formal “Community Partnerships” – a step which unlocks £1 million per year of community investment funding for initiatives supporting economic development, improving community well-being, or enhancing the local environment. For those communities which remain in the process, this figure could rise to £2.5 million.

Is the work keeping the careers of scientists and engineers alive?

Well - yes. But thank goodness! The work will certainly support many science and engineering professionals to learn more about the waste itself, the technology used to immobilise it and the surrounding geology of a GDF site. But surely we want to have people who know all about that – and ensure that the latest, most advanced and effective technologies are being used both to construct the facility and to monitor it once built and full of waste? These are the people whose scientific expertise will support the detailed planning and implementation of the GDF during the coming decades. If we don’t give them the training now (building on the knowledge of today’s experts) we can’t simply create experienced and expert scientists overnight when we need them.

Are we suggesting that the industry doesn’t know how to look after its waste?

Doing research into a better product doesn’t mean the ones we have are unsuitable. We all drive cars in the knowledge that in 10 years time they will look dated. And the fact that the motor industry or the mobile phone industry spends huge sums on research doesn’t mean that the models of today are unfit for purpose in any way. They are just based on 2022 technology – and in 10 or 20 years time, that will have advanced in a multitude of ways. Apple spent almost $22 billion (yes – billion!) on research in its 2021 financial year, but not because today’s iPhones and MacBooks don’t work! Because it wants to develop better ones for the future.

The nuclear industry has made huge strides over its relatively short lifetime in understanding different types of nuclear waste and developing better and better means to characterize, separate, package, store and monitor the hazardous materials which cannot be recycled. It is right for it to will continue to do so – and to reap the benefits of that knowledge.

Finally, are we adding to the “nuclear bill”?

Research isn’t free – it certainly costs money to support leading edge scientific development, especially when handling nuclear materials. But it’s wrong to see the funding for such research as wasted money which needs to be added to the bill. Quite the reverse – the total cost of a GDF is estimated as being around £12 Bn, and annual costs of the research portfolio covering waste behaviour, engineering materials, geology and other aspects of the programme (including – importantly – the social science of how to do community engagement most effectively) are currently a mere £2-3M per year. Even with a 20 year programme of research, if that work were to reduce the overall GDF budget by merely 2%, without any spinoff benefit to the wider waste management programmes of NDA, it would have paid for itself four times over!

We should also remember that the cost of nuclear waste disposal for much of our legacy sits with the taxpayer. Not as a subsidy, but because the industry when the wastes were generated was all Government-run, so it was always anticipated that the state would cover the costs of dealing with waste and decommissioning.

The fact that each and every one of us will be contributing towards these costs means that – instead of complaining that the Government is funding research into nuclear waste – we should perhaps be demanding they invest in this important work a bit more!

Express your opinion

Now that members have read the two sides of the debate on whether the Government is well advised to spend major sums on nuclear waste, we would like to hear your views. The monthly email notifying you about this newsletter contains a link to an online poll - for SONE members only - asking for your opinion. We urge you to vote in this poll.

The Real Future of Energy is Nuclear

A reply by Wade Allison, recently published in “Foreign Affairs”, to an article by Allison Macfarlane, formerly chair the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (2012-2014).

In a recent article in Foreign Affairs, “Nuclear Energy Will Not Be the Solution to Climate Change”, Allison Macfarlane paints a gloomy picture of the likely contribution of nuclear power. But she is wrong to extrapolate from the failure of the nuclear industry in the past 40 years, just as it was wrong to predict that the pharmaceutical industry would take decades to find a vaccine for COVID-19. A global emergency raises the game – and climate change qualifies as a global emergency.

The three widely available sources of energy are “renewables” (such as wind, hydroelectric, and solar), fossil fuels, and nuclear energy. These are all natural – only the technology to use them is man-made. Macfarlane hails renewables as “noncarbon-emitting energy technologies that are ready to be deployed today, not ten or 20 years from now.” But “farms” to harvest the diluted energy of renewables are vast and vulnerable to extreme weather; worse, they are unreliable. Look no further than California and Texas, where rolling blackouts and outages left people without power—in the Lone Star state this happened when temperatures were plummeting, and the lack of heat led to some 100 deaths.

Nuclear power, in contrast, can safely provide energy anytime and anywhere. Macfarlane is right, however, that since 1980, the nuclear industry has failed miserably, hampered by a widespread fear of nuclear technology. This increased after the accident at Three Mile Island in 1979, which caused no loss of life but which coincided with the release of The China Syndrome, a blockbuster film featuring an utterly unrealistic nuclear meltdown. The accident at Fukushima Daiichi in northern Japan in 2011 further eroded confidence in nuclear energy, despite the fact that there were no casualties associated with that accident, either.

We need to remove the lingering tarnish that has adhered to nuclear energy since the Cold War era. The challenges that lie ahead fit a pattern that we can discern in the effort to tackle another global emergency—the COVID-19 pandemic. The first need was to find a vaccine; then, make it available internationally; finally, to persuade the public to accept it. The vaccine was discovered faster than any expected; the roll-out is still hampered by squabbles over intellectual property and nationalism, inappropriate to a global crisis; the antivax hurdle remains difficult.

Nuclear power is not a vaccine for climate change, but it is an important component to reducing carbon emissions on the scale required. An immediate first step is to stop the illogical closure of existing nuclear plants and press ahead with new ones of traditional design. Once small, factory-produced reactors are available, governments and companies need to mass produce them and install them around the world to replace fossil fuel plants. Here we may well run into an issue we saw in the dissemination of vaccines: wealthier nations have, on the whole, been hesitant to ensure shots are available in poorer countries. It’s an open question whether investors would agree to provide nuclear reactors to nations with insufficient resources to afford them—although, as with the global pandemic, failing to do so would ultimately negatively impact individuals across the globe.

Then there is the anti-nuclear fear to overcome – a fear more deeply engrained than the anti-vax variety. The nuclear establishment should work to reverse the widely held view that nuclear energy is dangerous, weird, and hard to understand. It is, in fact, an essential component of the natural world, and in the sphere of health, at least, nuclear technology is already widely accepted as beneficial, thanks to the work of Marie Curie. “Carbon neutral by 2050” is a political slogan that omits the crucial issue of how the world can achieve such an ambitious goal. Nuclear energy is an important part of the response. For our children’s future we should try to build trust in it.

Lise Meitner – a Life in Physics

By Ruth Lewin Sime (1997)

My “to-do” list is always over-subscribed. A note to study this biography of Lise Meitner has languished there for some time. It is unusual for me to actually find the time to read a work of over 500 pages. I now appreciate that it was most important that I did so. Despite its length and the thoroughness of its scholarship I found it gripping and for several days I could not put it down. The personal drama of the unexpected discovery of nuclear fission by Lise Meitner and her nephew Otto Frisch rose to its climax in their discussion at Christmas 1938 when they realised at last the explanation of the data that they had been looking at for four years. All this in the context of work done in Berlin from which she had to flee because of her Jewish background.

Many might find this book too heavy a read all the way through, but it has seriously influenced my thinking. I realise for the first time what an appalling accident of history it was that fission should have been discovered in the heart of Nazi Germany so close to the outbreak of war – when in fact nuclear fission as a feature of the natural world is in principle quite unrelated to the horrors of war. However, the distorted view that there is something terrible about nuclear energy which flowed from this coincidence is what we still wrestle to correct today.

Wade Allison, Hon. Sec.
Oxford, Jan 2022