Toxic legacy

As the UK looks set to push ahead with another generation of nuclear power, we thought it time to take a look at a dangerous legacy left behind by previous and current generations of nuclear power: nuclear waste. Will Simpson reports

Possibly more than any other energy source, nuclear power enrages and enflames. You either accept that it and its toxic byproducts are necessary pieces of the modern energy jigsaw, or regard them as unsafe, unclean and unwanted. It’s a political hot potato, which everyone seems to have a standpoint on.

This was never more true than in the 1980s when, in the wake of Chernobyl and a succession of leaks from the Sellafield reprocessing plant, the nuclear industry’s public image took a nosedive. Government policy later reflected this – indeed, as one by one the first generation of British nuclear reactors closed during the 1990s and 2000s, they were not replaced. In 1997, some 26 per cent of our electricity was produced by nuclear power, but by 2009 that figure had fallen to just 16 per cent.

But recently things have changed. The imperative to reduce carbon emissions has put nuclear power firmly back on the agenda. This has split the green movement – some have come round to the view that it may have to play a role if the UK is to meet its CO2 reduction targets. In October 2010, the UK government gave the go-ahead for eight new nuclear facilities, if suitable sites can be found. Inevitably, huge political battles lie ahead, and the issue of safety will doubtless be hotly debated, as will the conundrum of what to do with the waste the plants produce.