DETR looks to planning reform to secure nuclear waste dump

The Government's plans to reform the planning system may be used to drive through approval for radioactive waste disposal sites in the face of local opposition, officials told a House of Lords inquiry in February. The inquiry has also raised questions over the future of nuclear power and fuel reprocessing following the collapse of Nirex's plans to build an underground waste repository.

The UK's radioactive waste management policy was left in tatters last year when Environment Secretary John Gummer refused planning approval for an underground "rock characterisation facility" near Sellafield in Cumbria (ENDS Report 266, pp 13-14 ). The decision was a crushing setback for Nirex's work on developing an underground repository for intermediate level waste (ILW). A solution to the problem of high level waste (HLW) disposal is still more remote.

In February, the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee began an inquiry on the management of nuclear waste (ENDS Report 274, p 38 ). Its report, expected in the autumn, may have a strong influence on the Government's thinking. Dr David Fisk, Chief Scientist at the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (DETR), told the Committee: "Ministers are aiming towards a strategy [on radioactive waste] informed by the findings of this inquiry."

The Committee is particularly well qualified for the task in hand. Its members include Lord Flowers, Chairman of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution (RCEP) at the time of its seminal 1976 report on nuclear power and the environment; Lord Jenkin, Environment Secretary in the early 1980s; and Lord Gregson, author of an influential Lords' report on hazardous waste in 1981.

In February, the Committee heard evidence from the DETR and from British Nuclear Fuels (BNFL) and the UK Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA), the main holders of civil ILW and HLW arisings. Evidence was also presented by QuantiSci, a consultancy which is carrying out work for the DETR on a research strategy for dealing with HLW and spent nuclear fuel.

Further input to the debate has come from the Government's Radioactive Waste Management Advisory Committee (RWMAC), which recently published a study on the implications of the failure of Nirex's planning application.1

  • Disposal options: The DETR told the Committee that storage or underground disposal are "the only practical ways of dealing with long-lived radioactive waste." Disposal at sea or in Antarctica have been ruled out by international treaties, while disposal in space is considered too dangerous. The UK is keeping an eye on overseas work on transmutation of wastes into shorter-lived isotopes - but the technology holds out limited prospects, and could not deal with existing wastes.

    Environmental groups argue that long-term surface storage is the best option as it would permit further work on developing disposal options, allow monitoring of the waste and avoid the problems of retrieval caused by any leaks in a repository. But the DETR says it "cannot, at this stage, see any alternative to eventually disposing of nuclear waste deep underground."

    The nuclear industry remains committed to an underground repository. BNFL now envisages one being operational in 2040. It says it can store ILW and HLW on its Sellafield site for 50-100 years, though it will need new capacity to do so.

    However, RWMAC says it is "debatable" whether storage for 50-100 years "could be married to the existing policy of sustainable development" as it relies on actions by future generations. The Committee argues that surface storage is certainly "not a sustainable option in the very long term."

  • Co-disposal of ILW, HLW and spent fuel: The prospect of a lengthy delay to any ILW repository has opened up the possibility that it could be extended to accept HLW. Indeed, QuantiSci is also examining the prospects for co-disposal of ILW and spent fuel - a development which could spell the end of the road for BNFL's reprocessing activities (see below).

    The nuclear industry is confident that co-disposal of HLW and LLW is technically feasible. George Beveridge, BNFL's Director of Waste Retrieval and Decommissioning and a board member of Nirex, told the Committee that "a single repository would be an attractive proposition" as it would be less costly and reduce the number of contentious planning applications.

  • Institutional arrangements: In 1976, the RCEP called for the establishment of a statutory committee to sponsor and direct research into waste disposal. A company owned by the nuclear industry would develop and pay for any facility, following guidelines laid down by the Government on the advice of the committee.

    But the Government set up a different model, under which the disposal company Nirex was also responsible for drawing up repository criteria and selecting a site. RWMAC was given much less authority than the advisory body envisaged by the RCEP, and its membership is dominated by representatives of the nuclear industry.

    All parties accept that these arrangements have failed. RWMAC says that the collapse of the Sellafield RCF project is "attributable, to a large extent, to public perception about the lack of transparency and openness in Nirex's programme" - particularly "secrecy" in the site selection process which "led to lack of reassurance of scientific objectivity." It says that care must be taken to ensure that any "daughter of Nirex" is not seen, as Nirex was, as a "tool of the nuclear industry".

    The DETR appears to have limited ambitions for reform. It says that "it would probably be for the developer" - Nirex or its successor - to identify two or three locations for a repository "taking into account operational, cost and safety implications and the prospect of obtaining planning and safety consents."

    BNFL, UKAEA and QuantiSci backed a model similar to the RCEP's. Mr Beveridge was "keen to see a change from the current position where Nirex is responsible for developing many aspects of site selection. We'd like to see much more Government ownership of the process of site selection, with the disposal company carrying out a programme within clearly defined criteria."

    But on cross-examination it became clear that BNFL wants the disposal company rather than the advisory body to carry out "the vast majority" of research into repository development. Lord Flowers doubted that this represented an advance on the current position, and may not give the advisory body sufficient expertise to oversee research. "It's not really the nuclear industry's expertise that you need in developing disposal," he said - and suggested that geological, hydrogeological and civil engineering research may be better fostered by an independent advisory body.

    Lord Gregson observed that "what [BNFL] is suggesting is a repeat of the Nirex experience." "The public see a totally incestuous state of affairs," he said, "with the same group of people" sitting on RWMAC and Nirex's board.

    The nuclear industry is alive to this criticism. Roy Nelson, Director of UKAEA's Dounreay facility, accepted that "the public has lost trust in many members of the nuclear industry, which is perceived as secretive and not always telling the truth when it should." It could be observed that the unfolding saga of radioactive contamination on the Dounreay site has contributed greatly to that view (ENDS Report 245, pp 22-23 ).

    Both BNFL and UKAEA argue that a new advisory body should have much broader membership than RWMAC, and include environmental groups, local authorities and regulatory bodies. BNFL argued that such a body would be "ideally placed to manage consultation with the public" and to foster "a high level of consensus" on the development stages of a repository.

    However, it is far from certain that environmental groups would be willing to play ball. The major groups may be reluctant to boost the credibility of a process which would be dedicated to the eventual delivery of a repository.

    BNFL also proposed that the advisory body could oversee hazardous, non-radioactive wastes from other industries. The idea received short shrift from Lord Gregson - who said that hazardous waste "is a simple problem compared to [BNFL's] problem. You're about ten orders away from that."

  • Site selection and planning: Professor Neil Chapman of QuantiSci told the Committee that the geology of 20-30% of the UK's landmass offers some potential for a repository. In 1989, Nirex homed in on a dozen or so potential sites. With the exception of Dounreay and Sellafield - added to the list at a late stage - their identity has never been made public.

    The Committee was surprised to learn from Dr Fisk that the identity of sites on the shortlist had not been passed to the Government "formally or informally". "There was no particular reason why Nirex needed to tell us," he said, as it was looking to an RCF rather than a final repository.

    However, Richard Jones, a senior DETR planning official, said that "we were not surprised" when Nirex's planning application was challenged on the issue of alternative sites. Moreover, he said, "there was confusion, doubt and suspicion in the minds of many people" as a result of lack of clarity as to whether the planning inquiry concerned an RCF or a step leading inevitably towards a repository. "It was not a satisfactory basis on which to build public trust," he conceded.

    Mr Jones was "more optimistic about the prospect of making progress" towards a repository in light of the Government's recent proposals to reform the planning system (ENDS Report 276, pp 43-45 ). New parliamentary procedures for approving major projects and truncating public inquiries could, he said, "leave rather less to be debated at a local inquiry."

    BNFL's Chairman John Guinness told the Committee he warmly welcomed the proposals, which "are going to restrict the powers of a planning inquiry very considerably...So long as it produces the right result I'll be happy."

    UKAEA's Roy Nelson observed that "we are looking for a solution in the national interest which may not appear to be in the interest of local people" - and suggested that any application for a repository would fail under the present system. UKAEA wants the Government to define key "milestones" on the road to a repository - and to "take all practical measures to ensure that decisions taken are binding and final."

    The prospect that the Government could use planning reforms to drive through a repository in the face of local opposition is likely to attract a hostile reception from local authorities and environmental groups. Lord Gregson observed that the Secretary of State already has powers to approve planning applications in the national interest - but Lord Jenkin noted that Mr Gummer had been restrained from doing so with the RCF application because the damning nature of the inspector's report would have exposed him to judicial review.

    RWMAC has come forward with even more radical proposals under which, it says, "the public will need to be persuaded to accept potentially unpopular decisions." It proposes that new legislation should set out procedural ground rules and criteria to be applied at each stage of repository development. A statutory advisory board would then develop the process of site selection in parallel with the disposal company, and recommend a "realistic" number - perhaps 10-12 sites - to the Government for approval.

    RWMAC says that a planning inquiry commission would then narrow down the list - although at this stage "it would not be possible to reopen the debate on the need for a repository, which would be enshrined in the Parliamentary Act." Finally, a public inquiry would address the safety case for two or three preferred sites - but would be barred from re-examining the earlier process of site selection.

    The disadvantage of this approach, RWMAC says, is the risk of development blight of shortlisted sites. But it believes this is "preferable to the atmosphere of secrecy which surrounded Nirex's previous site selection process," and proposes a policy of compensation payments and other measures for the host communities.

    All parties agreed with Lord Jenkin's view that "it is absurd" that the Environment Agency has no formal input until a full application for a repository is received. "On reflection," Dr Fisk said, "the DETR would consider that an RCF application has to look ahead to the possibility of a repository and the Agency has to be brought in."

  • Implications for reprocessing and new nuclear power:
    The continuing lack of a disposal route for ILW and HLW casts a shadow over the case for reprocessing of spent fuel and the prospects for new nuclear capacity in the UK.

    In February, Environment Minister Angela Eagle revealed that the quantities of HLW and ILW stored at Sellafield are increasing steadily (see table ). These volumes are due to rise to 2,300m3 and 290,000m3, respectively, as a result of reprocessing to 2013 and decommissioning of reprocessing and nuclear power plants.

    In 1976, the RCEP cautioned against "a large programme of nuclear fission power until it has been demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt that a method exists to ensure the safe containment [of ILW and HLW] for the indefinite future."

    RWMAC argues that "the RCF dismissal does not, on ILW management grounds alone, compel any decision" to stop reprocessing or curtail development of new nuclear power stations.

    The conclusion is based on the view that nearly 90% of the ILW inventory is already committed, even if all nuclear reactors and BNFL's THORP reprocessing plant were shut immediately. RWMAC says that if the UK built eight new pressurised water reactors (PWRs), the ILW inventory would increase by 9%, making no significant impact on the scale or cost of a repository.

    However, RWMAC does not mention HLW arisings. The DETR's latest waste inventory concluded that these could be reduced by over one-third if THORP does not operate for more than ten years. The alternative approach would be to store spent fuel, pending direct disposal in a repository.

    Lord Flowers strongly questioned the justification for THORP's continued operation. "We started reprocessing for material for bombs and fast breeder reactors," he said. "If we were starting now, it is arguable that we would not be reprocessing fuel at all but simply treating spent fuel from the reactor." He suggested that the Government is "hamstrung" by BNFL's commercial demands.

    Steven Brown, Head of the DETR's Radioactive Substances Division, replied that "the Government has not come to a view on reopening the matter of THORP." He suggested that "there isn't a marked difference in environmental impact" between reprocessing and direct disposal of spent fuel.

    BNFL's John Guinness maintained that reprocessing reduces waste from the fuel cycle once uranium mining is taken into account. He claimed that it could support a "renaissance of nuclear power", driven by the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and that a revival of the fast breeder reactor programme was "quite possible." However, Roy Nelson of UKAEA, which spent £4 billion on the breeder programme, said the technology is unlikely to be reconsidered for 50-100 years.

    Nevertheless, the delay to any repository may have a serious impact on BNFL's business. The last Government approved the company's plans for waste "substitution", under which ILW arisings from reprocessing of foreign wastes can be retained in the UK, and a radiologically equivalent amount of HLW is returned to the country of origin. This would cut the number of costly and controversial waste shipments by a factor of ten - and, says BNFL, "greatly enhance" its prospects of winning new orders for THORP's second decade of operation.

    Current policy is that substitution can only occur if an ILW disposal facility is available within 25 years of the wastes being generated. BNFL is calling on the Government to scrap the time limit. But the Scottish Environment Protection Agency has proposed a tougher 10-year time limit for return of wastes from Dounreay - putting pressure on the Environment Agency to impose a comparable limit on Sellafield.

  • Plutonium stockpiles: In February, the Royal Society expressed "extreme concern" over the risk of illicit nuclear weapons production from the growing stockpile of plutonium arising from reprocessing.2 Current stocks of 54 tonnes of civil plutonium are forecast to rise to over 100 tonnes by 2010.

    The report says that "the present lack of strategic direction for dealing with civil plutonium is disturbing." It suggests that growth in stocks could be curtailed by cutting reprocessing. The Society found it "hard to imagine" successful deep disposal of plutonium "even in the medium term" - and doubted the economic feasibility and security implications of BNFL's plan to use plutonium in existing reactors as mixed oxide fuel (ENDS Report 276, p 8 ).

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