DEFRA plays long game in search for nuclear waste consensus

The Government has launched a lengthy consultation process intended to win widespread support for a new policy on managing the UK's radioactive wastes.1 The process will not bear fruit until after the next election - and the consultation skirts round the thorny questions of new nuclear build, fuel reprocessing and the selection of sites for waste disposal or storage.

The UK's policy for dealing with solid radioactive waste has been in limbo since March 1997, when former Environment Secretary John Gummer blocked moves towards developing an underground repository for intermediate level waste (ILW) at Sellafield in Cumbria (ENDS Report 266, pp 13-14 ).

In 1999, a House of Lords Committee urged the Government to start work "without delay" on finding a solution to the UK's growing stockpile of radioactive waste (ENDS Report 290, pp 30-32 ).

However, progress has been painfully slow. The promised consultation was delayed by tensions between the Environment and Industry Departments - not least because of sensitivities over the planned privatisation of British Nuclear Fuels (BNFL) - and was then held back by the general election.

Launching the consultation in September, Environment Minister Michael Meacher called for a "national debate" on the best way to deal with radioactive wastes. "Any decisions on managing radioactive waste cannot and must not be rushed," he said. "The legacy of a wrong decision would be catastrophic."

The paper aims to kick off a process that will "ultimately lead to the implementation of a radioactive waste management policy capable of commanding widespread support across the UK." To inspire public confidence, the Government says it will seek to demonstrate that all options are considered, that choices are made in a clear and logical way, and that peoples' values and concerns are fully reflected in the process.

The Government's approach follows that proposed by its Radioactive Waste Management Advisory Committee (RWMAC).2 RWMAC observes that "initiatives based on an approach of deciding and announcing a particular policy, and then seeking subsequently to defend it, failed some years ago."

The consultation paper does not dismiss or endorse any waste management options. However, only two real candidates are on the table. Disposal in a deep underground repository - possibly in a phased, retrievable fashion - is advocated by the existing waste disposal company Nirex. Indefinite storage on the surface is favoured by environmental groups and, quietly, some waste producers as it allows them to defer expenditure on liabilities.

The Government proposes a five-stage programme for taking the process forward, with an indicative timetable (see table). The key milestone - an announcement of the chosen option for dealing with waste - is scheduled for 2006, almost certainly after the next general election.

The Government says that innovative methods are needed to ensure wide public participation without over-simplifying the issues. It seeks views on the suitability of methods such as interactive panels, citizens' juries, consensus conferences and stakeholder dialogues. Some work in this area has already been undertaken by Nirex (ENDS Report 319, pp 20-25 ).

The Government also proposes appointing an "independent and authoritative body" to advise on information needs throughout the process, and to advise when enough information has been gathered to enable decisions to be taken. This body could be supported by another organisation to co-ordinate research - or alternatively the advisory and research roles could be combined. Modified versions of RWMAC and Nirex are among the models put forward.

The process of selecting one or more sites for disposal or long-term storage - inevitably the most controversial part of the process - is unlikely to get under way until the end of the decade at the earliest. The criteria for site selection inevitably depend on the chosen waste management option. However, the paper is silent on the process of site selection and on the ethics and practicality of offering compensation to affected communities.

The Government says it is "too soon to seek views" on institutional arrangements for implementing the preferred option. Nirex or a new industry-owned Liabilities Management Authority - an option being considered in a review of the UK Atomic Energy Authority - are mentioned as possible candidates. Notably, the paper does not mention the widely-touted option of reconstituting Nirex as a body independent of waste producers, but funded by them through a levy.

Other key issues in the consultation include:

  • Nuclear fuel reprocessing: The Government says that the new policy on radioactive waste management "should be as comprehensive and forward-looking as possible." It is therefore "preferable" to develop a clear idea of which materials might be included within the strategy. The key questions concern reprocessed plutonium and uranium.

    The paper seeks views on whether "some" of the stocks of plutonium and uranium should be considered as waste. If they were classed as wastes, the consultation notes that "this would have implications for the rationale of producing more."

    The Government stresses that reprocessing of spent Magnox fuel must continue, as direct disposal "is not a practical option". However, long-term storage or direct disposal is a serious possibility for fuel from British Energy's AGR and PWR reactors.

  • Plutonium: More than 60 tonnes of UK civil separated plutonium is stored at BNFL's Sellafield works. The only potential use for this material is in mixed oxide (MOX) fuel. The commissioning of BNFL's MOX manufacturing plant, built in 1996, has been delayed by doubts over its economic justification, compounded by loss of customer confidence after a data falsification scandal at Sellafield (ENDS Report 301, pp 24-26 ).

    British Energy has no plans to use MOX fuel as it is considerably more costly than fresh uranium fuel. The company is already trying to escape its costly reprocessing contracts with BNFL (see p 7 ) - and says that if plutonium was declared a waste "it would be nonsensical for British Energy to continue with reprocessing and the creation of a further liability."

    The Government notes that aged plutonium is less useful as a fuel because of the build-up of radioactive decay products. Perhaps a third of the UK's plutonium stockpile falls into this category and is a prime candidate for being declared a waste.

    However, the consultation also notes that any decision on reclassifying plutonium should take account of its energy value "should changing economics or considerations such as climate change make new capacity attractive."

    Options for dealing with waste plutonium include encapsulation in glass or ceramics or mixing with high level waste (HLW). Costs would be "of the order of billions of pounds", with most of the liability falling on the public sector.

    Overall, a decision to class some or all plutonium as a waste would greatly increase BNFL's liabilities and fatally undermine its reprocessing activities. It would almost certainly put an end to the Government's plans to privatise the company.

  • Reprocessed uranium: For many years, the use of this material to manufacture new AGR fuel has been uneconomic because of the low cost of fresh uranium. Combined stocks of reprocessed and depleted uranium could double from the current level of 50-60,000 tonnes.

    As with plutonium, the Government asks whether the uranium stockpile should be kept as a potential fuel or whether "some" should be classed as waste. The latter approach would require substantial financial provisions - again mainly by the public sector - in order to put the material beyond use.

  • Waste substitution: Under current policy, BNFL can substitute intermediate level waste (ILW) arising from reprocessing of overseas fuel for smaller volumes of HLW. This option would greatly reduce the number of costly and controversial waste shipments. However, it is effectively ruled out because it depends on an ILW disposal facility being established within 25 years of the wastes being generated.

    BNFL claims that returning wastes without substitution may cost it around £700 million in lost premiums on current and future contracts. But environmental groups argue that substitution allows the UK to become a dumping ground for overseas waste.

    The consultation paper seeks views on the links between waste substitution and the availability of a long-term management strategy. But it appears sympathetic to the idea of relaxing the constraints on substitution.

  • Implications for new nuclear power: The nuclear industry is urging the Government to back a new programme of reactors (pp 4-5). One of the main barriers to such a revival is the lack of an agreed approach to dealing with nuclear waste.

    The paper is remarkably terse on the waste management implications of a new nuclear power programme, noting merely that modern reactors produce much less waste than the old Magnox plants. It fails to discuss the impacts that a new generation of reactors could have on the timing, quantity and nature of future waste arisings, and the possibility that a greater number of waste storage or disposal sites may be needed.

  • Regulation: The Environment Agency, backed by the House of Lords Committee, has been calling for powers to regulate waste storage sites. These are currently overseen by the HSE, and the Agency and its counterpart in Scotland have no remit until an application is made to dispose of the waste. This means that they have no clear say on the storage and processing of wastes which could prejudice future management options.

    The consultation paper seeks views on giving the Agencies statutory powers over waste storage. But it notes the danger of overlapping regulation with the HSE, and suggests that the current system of consultation between the regulators may suffice.

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