May 2002

Policy failures may cause nuclear waste crisis, say scientists, May 3, 2002
By Steve Connor, Science Editor

[Posted 06/05/2002]

Britain's nuclear waste problem could soon develop into a full-blown crisis if the Government fails to formulate a viable long-term policy on how to tackle the problem, senior scientists warned yesterday.

A report by the Royal Society says that Britain has failed over a period of several decades to address an issue that is going to get far worse as existing nuclear power plants are decommissioned.

The Royal Society scientists found that some nuclear waste is not stored as safely as it should be and that the public has lost confidence in the supposedly independent bodies that are charged with overseeing its safety.

"There is a serious and urgent problem of how to manage and dispose of the legacy of 50 years of nuclear waste production by the nuclear weapons programme and the civilian nuclear industry," said Professor Geoffrey Boulton, a geologist from Edinburgh University who chaired the inquiry.

"There are now more than 10,000 tons of waste mainly stored at Sellafield in Cumbria but also at Dounreay in Scotland. Even if there is no further construction of nuclear power generation plants, the decommissioning of existing plants would produce a fiftyfold increase in waste over the next few decades. So the issue is serious, and it is large," Professor Boulton said.

Successive governments have postponed the politically contentious decision on what do with the high-level and medium-level waste that has accumulated since Britain began its nuclear programme in the early 1950s.

At present, the waste, which can remain radioactive for many centuries, is stored above ground in waste tanks but many scientists would like it buried deep underground in long-term repositories after it has been safely "encapsulated" in ceramic or glass blocks.

Professor Boulton said: "For 30 years the UK has singularly failed to create a publicly acceptable policy for the management and ultimate disposal of these potentially harmful wastes. It is time we broke out of this weary merry-go-round.

"One of the most, possibly the most, immediate and difficult problem is not a scientific or technological one. There has been a failure to recognise the need for the public understanding of policies related to toxic wastes with a lifetime far in excess of the lifetime of current generations and indeed of many generations to come."

The report by the Royal Society, which was produced in response to a government consultation exercise, found that the nuclear industry had assumed that the problem of waste was one of simple engineering. It also assumed that the disposal of waste could be achieved rapidly while the waste was still being accumulated, the society says.

"The industry therefore seems to have regarded treatment of waste as of secondary importance, and to have focused its efforts on countering what it saw as unfounded hostile public opinion and on economic concerns," the report says. "We believe that today's problems are more serious than currently acknowledged and that a fundamental cause of them has been the error of the above assumptions."

It is estimated that it may now cost more than £85bn to tackle the waste products accumulated from the civilian and military nuclear programmes. The liabilities may increase still further if power plants start to burn mixed oxide fuel (Mox) since there is still no proven method of safely encapsulating spent Mox fuel for long-term storage, the Royal Society says.

Professor Boulton said: "We recommend as a matter of urgency that the best available technologies are applied to the 90 per cent of the waste that is still unencapsulated so as to improve safety in storage."

The Royal Society criticised the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) which is responsible for formulating the Government's policy on nuclear waste.

"We believe that a much more radical approach is needed than that identified by Defra. The first thing to recognise is that the current institutions do not command the public confidence that is required," Professor Boulton said.

"They are perceived as over-secretive and over-confident in making claims about benefit, cost and safety which has subsequently been proved false. We suggest that an independent, authoritative, transparent and accountable waste management commission is needed."

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