Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The shocking truths about nuclear waste

It's not just that nuclear power is scary. It's very expensive and we don't know what to do with the waste. This post substantiates this claim.

The cost of dealing with existing nuclear waste

I was completely shocked when I discovered that over 60% of the Department for Energy and Climate Change budget is spent on decommissioning existing nuclear sites.

It's almost unbelievable. They don't tell you in their budget of course. I had to dig it out, and here are the links.

The decommissioning of existing nuclear power stations is currently managed by the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority. Its 2010-11 budget is £2.8bn, of which £1.69 billion comes from the taxpayer via DECC. DECC's overall budget in this year is £2.9bn.

This leaves just £1.2 billion for DECC to do everything else. Just think about that for a moment. It's a cost that can't be cut because it would be too dangerous to do so. Therefore the only thing that could be done when DECC had to cut its budget in the Spending Review was to cut everything else.

The last estimate for the cost of dealing with the waste and decommissioning of the U.K.'s 19 reactors, by the National Audit Office in January 2008 was £73 billion over the next hundred years. This was 18% above initial estimates, and the costs of even near-term actions are still rising when they should have stabilised.

This factors out to a cost of £1000 for each and every household in the UK for 100 years. What could we do with that money? Payoff our mortgages? Save that public library or hospital?

And what happens after the hundred years is up?

The cost of dealing with the radioactive waste from new nuclear power stations

The government has argued that new nuclear build should not be subsidised by the taxpayer and that companies should come up with a plan to manage the waste they create. They are currently allocating £1 billion per reactor.

But if I divide 19 into the 73 billion figure above I get nearly £4bn, not £1bn.

Now we all know that costs always rise never fall. We know from experience this particularly applies to the nuclear industry (see Paul Brown and Greenpeace's excellent voodoo economics report). Who is going to pick up the bill when these private companies say they can't afford to deal with the waste?

Let's take an analogy: successive Tory and Labour governments told us that PFI schemes were quick way to get infrastructure built at low cost to the taxpayer. We are now finding out that in fact it is the taxpayer that is being required to pick up much higher bills than they would have done in the first place for a longer period of time from many PFI schemes.

In some contracts, council tax payers will be paying for things that have already ceased to be a service.

And there is the problem of finding out what legal entity is liable for these future costs. Many PFI schemes have been sold on so many times in just a few years it has in some cases become hard to find who is now responsible. And what happens when companies go into receivership?

Yet nuclear waste will be around for hundreds of years. How much more difficult will it be? Who exactly will the contracts be with? You can imagine very easily what is most likely to happen... Taxpayers will pick up the bill.

But we are talking as if there is a solution to nuclear waste already, and there isn't.

What should we do with existing nuclear waste?

CoRWM, the independent Committee on Radioactive Waste Management, said in 2006 nuclear waste should be kept forever in a specially built safe storage facility deep underground.

But while the government pointed to this as the solution to waste from any new plants, CoRWM said it only meant this solution to apply to waste from Britain's old military nuclear programme dating back to the 1950s, so called legacy waste (see below for the link).

The government has asked for communities to volunteer to have nuclear waste stored in its location in return for a sweetener and bribes. So far, only one has come forward, the already nuclear-industry dependent area around Copeland, Cumbria, for which the government has been made to set up a “community fund” in return for allowing the continued operation and expansion of a low-level waste repository, where lightly contaminated material such as clothing is stored.

Experiments and discussions are still ongoing to determine whether and how high-level nuclear waste could be stored underground. The Office of Government Commerce has this year reviewed the Government management of the Managing Radioactive Waste Safely (MRWS) geological disposal programme, but the report has not yet been published.

The truth is we don't yet know what to do with existing nuclear waste.

Should we trust the government and industry on dealing with nuclear waste?

The Nuclear Liabilities Financing Assurance Board (NLFAB), which is stuffed with industry insiders, has one page on the DECC website, where its membership, remit and minutes of its meetings are published. It has discussed having a separate web presence and meeting NGOs but the current status of this work is not clear, since its minutes are only publish every six months and are extremely opaque giving almost no information.

This lack of information extends to the main DECC nuclear waste website and the MRWS website, most of which hasn't been updated since 2009.

This kind of secrecy does not inspire any confidence at all.

Do the experts believe we should have nuclear newbuild?

CoRWM does not believe that there should be any new nuclear build, because we don't know what to do with the existing waste. It can't actually come out and say so publicly, because that will be overstepping its remit.

But if you read between the lines of this document you can see its members struggling with themselves over how to phrase their intention in a politically acceptable manner.

Page 2 says "CoRWM’s intention to provide advice on the maintenance of public confidence in the management of new build wastes could be construed as support for new build. Such an interpretation would not be correct".

Its position statement on existing nuclear waste disposal - that it can be buried underground provided that a suitable site is found - "might be seized upon as providing a green light for new build. That is far from the case."

I think these experts, who have spent 10 years looking into the problem, are making their position quite clear. There should be no new nuclear power stations because we don't know what to do with the waste.

The Health and Safety Executive is currently evaluating proposals for new nuclear power stations submitted by energy companies. No doubt these will be sent back to the drawing board following the Fukushima incident.

The timetable for nuclear newbuild

The government was hoping that new nuclear build could start around 2014. The average length of time to construct a new nuclear power station is eight years. This means they won't be up and running until at least 2022.

Yet new wind farms take three years to build. Most renewable energy takes far less than 8 years.

Why are we wasting money and time on nuclear power when the money could be going into renewable energy, which is a lot safer and leaves no lasting toxic legacy?

There are many arguing that renewable energy is not up to the job. It's intermittent and unpredictable. But these criticisms only apply to wind power and photovoltaics.

There are many other technologies which I am describing in other blog posts, which, while not necessarily being market ready, certainly are just as market ready as carbon capture and storage, which is unproven at a commercial scale, and which the government is certainly relying upon to maintain business as usual while tackling climate change.

If the amount of investment that will be invested in new nuclear build was invested instead in taking these technologies forward, there is no doubt in my mind that Britain could be a world leader in, to pick just a few examples:

All renewable energy is solar power. It has been around for much longer than nuclear power. In 1878, the first solar parabolic dish was used to make ice. But even now this solar thermal market ready technology is largely unknown yet it has huge potential.

The 21st-century should be the solar age. Why waste money on nuclear?


Oliver Tickell said...

Excellent article but containing one dubious figure. £73 billion is over £1,000 not for every household in the UK, but for every man woman and child in the UK given current UK population of approx 62 million. My calculator tells me its £1,177. Spuriously accurate no doubt given that the £73 billion is probably a big underestimate.
Oliver, nuclearpledge.com.

Oliver Tickell said...

Another figure - the link to Hansard gives a figure of £1.7 billion, not the £1.69 billion you quote, which probably suffers from the 'spurious accuracy' problem anyway.

David said...

Thanks Oliver, your correction is much appreciated.