Nuclear disposal to take 100 years, advisors warn

Even with early action, the UK’s existing stockpile of nuclear waste will take at least a century to be fully entombed in a deep repository, according to the final report from the government’s Committee on Radioactive Waste Management (CoRWM).1

The report, issued on 31 July, fleshes out the committee’s draft conclusions released in May (ENDS Report 376, p 46). It restates its view that deep geological disposal is the best long-term option for dealing with nuclear waste, supported by other measures including "robust interim storage", a research and development programme, and working in partnership with the communities likely to host the waste facilities.

CoRWM thinks it will take about 35 years to find and build a deep repository - maybe longer if there is significant opposition from host communities. And once built, it would take 65 more to deposit all the waste and close the facility.

The committee wants the current waste storage arrangements to be reviewed urgently. It points out that most existing stores, which have a design life of only 30-50 years, will need to be refurbished or replaced with new ones capable of storing waste for 100 years and longer to cope with delays and the possibility that a deep repository may never be built.

"Historically we’ve only managed storage as if it is going to last 20-30 years," said Professor Gordon MacKerron CoRWM’s Chair. "Under our proposals they could last for 100 years or more."

Wastes should be made passively safe as soon as possible, repackaging should be avoided and transport kept to a minimum.

These recommendations are unlikely to be controversial. But the government will have more trouble swallowing CoRWM’s advice on engaging with host communities.

The committee wants communities to volunteer to host the repository. Once selected they should be treated as equal partners in negotiations with the government and have the right to withdraw consent up to a pre-determined point in the process.

"This is a new basis for implementing proposals - we are no longer imposing a decision as we did in the past," said Professor MacKerron. "The whole issue is based on the willingness to participate. You’re going to get nowhere unless you have public acceptance."

Communities would be encouraged to volunteer by being offered a package of benefits to improve their "wellbeing". Importantly, the community itself would decide on the package. Whether the government is willing to be this flexible remains to be seen.

The package’s other key element is increased research and development into the safety of geological disposal and possible alternatives. The committee rules out the possibility of phased disposal - delaying the closure of the repository for up to 300 years - because it thinks the 100-year time frame allows enough scope to look into alternatives. It says the waste should be removable until the repository is finally closed.

As with the draft report, CoRWM insists its advice applies only to legacy waste and not waste from new nuclear plants. Such waste should be subject to its own assessment process, and any community hosting a legacy waste repository should be able to refuse new waste.

"We’ve been going for two and a half years. New build was completely off the agenda when we started," said Professor MacKerron. "Our report can’t be seen as nodding through new build. We have a choice over whether we generate new waste; we have no choice but to deal with legacy waste."

But the government’s energy review published in July seized on CoRWM’s acknowledgement that, in principle, its technological proposals could deal with new and legacy wastes (ENDS Report 378, pp 37-38).

Given that no other country has, or even plans, more than one deep repository, it is difficult to see new build waste being excluded from a facility built for legacy waste.