New nuclear reactors will pose a bigger, hotter, more long-lasting waste problem

As Boris Johnson prepares a new push for nuclear power, the £131bn
problem of how to safely dispose of vast volumes of radioactive waste
created by the last British atomic energy programme remains unsolved.

The hugely expensive and dangerous legacy of the UK’s 20th-century nuclear
revolution amounts to 700,000 cubic metres of toxic waste – roughly the
volume of 6,000 doubledecker buses. Much of it is stored at Sellafield in
Cumbria, which the Office for Nuclear Regulation says is one of the most
complex and hazardous nuclear sites in the world.

As yet, there is nowhere
to safely and permanently deposit this waste. Nearly 50 years ago the
solution of a deep geological disposal facility (GDF) was put forward, but
decades later the UK is no nearer to building one.

Experts say new nuclear
facilities will only add to the problem of what to do with radioactive
waste from nuclear energy and that the “back end” issue of the
hazardous toxic waste from the technology must not be hidden.

An assessment by the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) says spent fuel from new
nuclear reactors will be of such high temperatures it would need to stay on
site for 140 years before it could be removed to a GDF, if one is ever
built in the UK.

“It is essential to talk about the back end of the
nuclear fuel cycle when you are considering building new nuclear power
stations,” said Claire Corkhill, a professor of nuclear material
degradation at the University of Sheffield and a member of the Committee on
Radioactive Waste Management, an independent body that advises the
government.

Whilst we have a plan to finally and safely deal with the
waste, it is less certain how this will be applied to the modern nuclear
reactors that the government are planning to roll out. “These are
completely different to previous reactors and we are at a very early stage
of understanding how to deal with the waste.

In my personal view, I do not
think we should be building any new nuclear reactors until we have a
geological disposal facility available.” “The amount of legacy waste is
not small in terms of nuclear waste,” said Corkhill. “It is expensive
to deal with. These materials are hazardous and we are looking at an
underground footprint of some 20km at a depth of 200 metres to 1,000
metres.

So regarding new nuclear sites, we need to think about whether it
is possible to build a GDF big enough for all the legacy waste and the new
nuclear waste.” Steve Thomas, a professor of energy policy at the
University of Greenwich, said: “Despite 65 years of using nuclear power
in Britain, we are still, at best, decades away from having facilities to
safely dispose of the waste. Until we know this can be done, it is
premature to embark on a major new programme of nuclear power plants.”

A government spokesperson said: “This is not an either/or situation. As the
prime minister has said, nuclear will be a key part of our upcoming energy
security strategy alongside renewables. We are committed to scaling up our
nuclear electricity generation capacity, and building more nuclear power
here in the UK, as seen through the construction of Hinkley Point C – the
first new nuclear power station in a generation. Alongside this we’re
developing a GDF to support the decommissioning of the UK’s older nuclear
facilities.”

 Guardian 28th March 2022

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2022/mar/28/push-for-new-uk-nuclear-plants-lacks-facility-for-toxic-waste-say-experts

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