Monday, October 08, 2012

The safest option for nuclear waste is to leave it where it is and not make any more

It is morally wrong to commission more nuclear power stations and create more nuclear waste until we know what to do with our existing waste. And we don't.

The subject of what to do with Britain's existing nuclear waste has reared its hot head again.

Last Thursday, DECC's new minister Baroness Verma was dispatched to Sellafield and the communities of Copeland and Allerdale, where the majority of the nuclear power station and the nuclear waste reprocessing plant's workers live, in the wake of the decision taken by local councillors at the end of September not to be rushed into having all of Britain's high-level nuclear waste buried beneath their feet.

Baroness Verma will need the wisdom of Solomon to deal with this dilemma.

High-level waste is mostly used reactor fuel and materials that have come into contact with it, as well as materials from processing nuclear weapons.

Currently all of Britain’s high-level waste is stored above ground in cooling ponds at Sellafield, and looking after it, and other nuclear waste, consumes over 60% of the Department for Energy and Climate Change's budget, or £1.69 billion a year.

The Government would love a final solution for what to do with all this waste, so that a new generation of nuclear power stations can be built that will create a whole lot more.

The problem is that only two communities in the country have stepped forward to offer themselves as candidates for storing this, the most dangerous material known to humanity.

One, Shepway District Council, voted against such a proposal on September 19.

The other area had already been ruled out as a safe site by Nirex, now the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, in a comprehensive geological survey conducted in the 1990s.

This is because of the presence of deep faults and fractures in the underlying geological structure, and underground water flows which could transport dangerous levels of radioactivity out into the environment.

Nevertheless, the Managing Radioactive Wastes Safety Partnership (MRWS), which was set up by the Labour government with the task of re-evaluating its geology, ignored the Nirex study and conveniently produced a document, “Initial Geological Unsuitability Screening" in 2008 which identified an area of 23 square kilometres which might be a candidate. This was commissioned from the British Geological Survey with a much narrower scope.

No wonder those councillors in West Cumbria are confused.

They are attracted by the jobs and promises of community regeneration from the government, basically a bribe for taking the material. But, not being experts on the subject, they don't know what to make of the conflicting advice that they have been given.

In two weeks' time, the independent Committee on Radioactive Waste Management (CoRWM) is to examine developments in West Cumbria and make a recommendation.

They must decide, along with the MRWS, whether it is appropriate to proceed to the next stage, stage 4, of the assessment of suitable sites, which is a desk-based study.

In doing so they must be bearing in mind the advice of David Smythe, Emeritus Professor of geophysics at Glasgow University, that “by proceeding to stage 4 in West Cumbria, despite the evidently insuperable difficulties of geology and hydrogeology, the NDA and the local authorities may run the risk of legal challenge".

David Smythe is supported in his assessment that MRWS' survey is woefully inadequate, by several other leading academics, including Colin Knight and Chris McDonald, who were the technical assessor and lead inspector at the original Nirex enquiry.

A former member of CoRWM, Professor Andy Blowers also agrees. Even the International Atomic Energy Authority considers that West Cumbria is an unsuitable site.

MRWS' own stooge, Dr Jeremy Dearlove, has attempted to argue that the area has “potentially suitable sedimentary formations".

But his argument has been torn to pieces by David Smythe, who accuses him of using debating tactics and disregarding international guidelines.

Prof. Smythe also accuses the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority of “airbrushing out the history" of the previous attempt to find a nuclear waste repository in West Cumbria, by removing from its website the vast bulk of Nirex documents. He has placed them instead on his own website.

Cumbria is exceptionally well understood region geologically, he says, and it is quite obvious that it is unsuitable to be used as a dump.

In the light of this, Baroness Verma should, in all intellectual honesty, make it clear to the Cumbrian councillors that this is the most objective and complete judgment available, not the MRWS one.

The principle of choosing the location for a site is, admirably, that a community must willingly volunteer. A dump cannot be imposed on a community that does not want one.

Logically, therefore, it seems that nowhere in the country is there a place that is both geologically suitable and where the people are unequivocally in favour of hosting a dump.

We are stuck with the status quo, until a new way of dealing with nuclear waste is found, perhaps with another generation of power stations that can use this waste as a fuel source and render it harmless.

Until science comes up with such a solution, the safest option is to continue storing it overground, at Sellafield, where at least it can be monitored.

Meanwhile, it would be morally wrong to approve the construction of any further nuclear power stations in this country, until a lasting solution of what to do with all present and future nuclear waste is found.

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