Sustainability

Views sought on managing radioactive waste

cumbria

The government has called for stakeholders to submit their views on the site selection process elements of the UK’s ongoing Managing Radioactive Waste Safely (MRWS) programme, to inform a public consultation.

The government has been looking for a UK borough to voluntarily host an underground nuclear waste disposal storage site to store ‘intermediate and high level’ radioactive waste. Currently, most of the UK’s ‘low-level’ waste (which accounts for 90 per cent of the total) is stored at Drigg in Cumbria in thousands of steel containers.

But this will need to rectified soon, as Sellafield (where 70 per cent of the UK’s total nuclear waste either arises or is reprocessed) is due to be decommissioned over the next decade and the National Audit Office recently published a report that condemned the operator of the plant for failing to develop a long-term plan for the site. It described nuclear waste being stored in run-down buildings at the site as an ‘intolerable risk’ to public health.

However, speaking of the call for evidence, Energy Minister Baroness Verma said: “The government remains firmly committed to geological disposal as the right policy for the safe and secure long-term management of higher-activity radioactive waste. We also continue to hold the view that the best means of selecting a site for a geological disposal facility is an approach based on voluntarism and partnership.

“Evidence from similar waste disposal programmes abroad, for example in Finland, Sweden and Canada, shows that this approach can work."

Voluntarism approach

To date, the voluntarism approach has not worked in the UK, after the last remaining British region willing to voluntarily host the controversial site, west Cumbria, voted against continuing the search for potentially hosting a £12 billion underground disposal facility for radioactive waste in the area, citing doubts over the suitability of the geology at Cumbria as well as fears over damaging the Lake District’s image. This overrode Copeland and Allerdale Borough’s decision to continue the search for a relevant site in the area.

By voting against the proposal, the county council excluded Copeland and Allderdale Boroughs from further consideration in the government’s Managing Radioactive Waste Safely process.

Baronness Verma said: “The fact that two local authorities in west Cumbria voted in favour of continuing the search for a potential site for a GDF (geological disposal facility) demonstrates that communities can recognise the substantial benefits associated with hosting such a facility – both in terms of job creation and the wider benefits associated with its development."

Key aspects of the MRSW Review

The UK’s government’s policy for the long-term management of the UK’s higher activity radioactive waste is geological disposal. In 2008, the MRWS White Paper was published, outlining the framework for implementing this policy.

Chapter six of the White Paper set out government’s preferred approach to site selection based on the principles of voluntarism and partnership.

The aspects of the MRSW process that have been called into question are include:

  • what could be improved in the MRWS White Paper;
  • what can be done to attract communities into the selection process; and
  • what information would help communities engage with the selection process.

The government is particularly inviting views from ‘those who have been engaged in (or have been observers of) the MWRS process to date’. The responses to this call will inform a consultation that will follow ‘later in the year’.

The DECC has also published the consultation response and guidance on the regulatory justification process for the reuse of plutonium. The guidance sets out the process for submitting applications for the reuse of plutonium, and outlines the regulatory decision-making process. This guidance supplements the existing regulations.

On plutonium, Baroness Verma said: “It is prudent to produce generic guidance to those wishing to apply to reuse plutonium, and this document will cover applications from a wide range of reuse technologies”.

The closing date for the submission of responses to the MWRS is 10 June 2013. 

Nuclear future

hinkley

Artist's impression of the Hinkley C site in Somerset

In line with the White Paper, Davey recently granted planning consent for the construction of the UK’s first new nuclear power station since 1995, a move intended to boost a low-carbon energy mix.

The Environmental Agency (EA) granted permits to allow the radioactive waste, discharge cooling water and liquid effluents produced by the plant to be discharged and disposed into the Bristol Channel.

Criticisms

As well as concerns criticisms raised by environmentalists, the House of Commons Energy and Climate Change Committee (ECC) have also condemned the government’s nuclear power plans.

The ECC called on the UK government in March this year to ‘urgently come up with a contingency plan’ for power as its plans to build a fleet of nuclear power plants by 2025 were cited as being ‘ambitious’ at best and ‘unrealistic’ at worst.

It added that if nuclear plans collapse, the energy market would be reliant on gas to close the gap, which could ‘bring indirect security concerns if the UK were to become more dependent on imported gas as a result’.

£12.5 million of UK funding for research reactor

However, the government’s plans for nuclear energy to play a part in its energy mix remain firm as it signed a joint communiqué with 12 EU member states with an interest in nuclear energy last month.

As part of the communiqué the UK and French governments also pledged to fund the 100 megawatt-tonne Jules Horowitz research reactor, with the UK assigning £12.5 million of funding to the project.

Read ‘Managing Radioactive Waste Safely: Review of the Siting Process for a Geological Disposal Facility’.

Read more about managing radioactive waste.