Reducing the Risk of Radioactive Waste

3 November 2009 (Last Updated November 3rd, 2009 18:30)

The storage and disposal of nuclear fuel is a crucial part of the nuclear debate. Ahead of Arena International’s Nuclear Waste: Challenges of Underground Storage Disposal conference, Ozge Ibrahim takes a look at the challenges.

Reducing the Risk of Radioactive Waste

The safety of nuclear power plants has been at the centre of controversy surrounding plans for new sites around the world. In the UK, plans to build a new nuclear power station near the Sellafield site have recently moved a step closer with the announcement that the land in Cumbria is close to being sold. According to a statement by the government issued just last week, the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) is close to a deal with an unidentified bidder, who intends to develop a new power plant.

The UK hopes it will lead the way with a new generation of nuclear plants to meet the country’s growing energy needs while ensuring a clean electricity supply that meets emissions reductions targets. But all countries with a nuclear element to their grid also face the challenge of the safe disposal of highly radioactive waste.

The ultimate disposal of spent fuel requires their isolation from the environment for long periods of time. In the UK, there are a number of organisations working together to ensure the safe commencement of nuclear build and resulting waste disposal.

The challenges presented by underground storage and disposal, including harmonising the approach to waste across Europe and beyond, will be debated at Arena International’s Nuclear Waste: Challenges of Underground Storage Disposal, taking place in London on 9 and 10 November.

Nuclear Britain

In January 2008, the government gave the green light for a new generation of nuclear power plants to be developed. The business secretary at the time, John Hutton, told MPs the nuclear plan would provide a "safe and affordable" way of securing the UK’s future energy supplies while helping to fight climate change.

“Of the 39 countries with significant nuclear waste, 25 have taken a final decision on long-term policy and all have opted for geological disposal.”

Critics of the plans remain sceptical that new reactors will be expensive and dangerous. Additionally, the case for a new generation of nuclear power plants in the UK has opened up a debate as to whether the country is ready to embark on new atomic facilities without properly tackling what some believe to be the unsolved problem of how to deal with radioactive waste from existing power plants.

In 2006, the Committee on Radioactive Waste Management published recommendations on how the UK should dispose of nuclear waste. In a recent interview with the Observer newspaper, some members of that committee warned that the government should not be thinking about a new build programme until the process of deep geological repository has been scientifically proven. In an interview, one such committee member told the newspaper that such scientific proof was a "long way off".

In response, the NDA said it had completed a detailed assessment of the disposability of new nuclear waste. It said it was working with relevant government bodies to ensure any new power stations built in the UK meet the highest standards of safety, security, environmental protection and waste management.

The European Commission has also stated that safe geological disposal of high-level nuclear waste is technically feasible. According to the NDA, of the 39 countries with significant nuclear waste, 25 have taken a final decision on long-term policy and all have opted for geological disposal.

Although some members of the power and scientific community remain critical of deep geological disposal, the NDA and the UK’s Environment Agency have at last set the wheels in motion to create a long-term plan for storing and disposing of spent fuel.

The Environment Agency’s policy development manager for radioactive substances Clive Williams will address delegates at the Nuclear Waste: Challenges of Underground Storage Disposal conference in London, focusing on the topic of long-term safety of disposal. In an exclusive interview with power-technology.com, Williams stressed the importance of stakeholder engagement in ensuring the safe disposal of radioactive waste.

Williams said communities must be consulted and listened to in the early stages of planning disposal sites. Williams admits that there needs to be assurances that waste can be both placed and stay deep underground in a way that will protect the people and environment.

Potential disposal sites will need to be investigated thoroughly to ensure all factors are taken into consideration before plans to build disposal sites are taken, Williams says. The Environment Agency will work with the NDA’s national assessment teams to regulate disposal at their sites. According to Williams, the Agency already has regulatory capabilities with research programmes and scientists. "We are prepared for it," he says.

Europe and Beyond

Britain may consider itself a leader in devising an effective nuclear plan for the future but there may also be lessons to learn, particularly from its European counterparts. For example, Sweden is currently considered to be at the forefront of deep geological disposal. The country has centralised used fuel storage at CLAB near Oskarshamn and will encapsulate used fuel there for geological disposal by about 2015.

“Potential disposal sites will need to be investigated thoroughly to ensure all factors are taken into consideration before plans to build disposal sites are taken.”

The Swedish Nuclear Fuel and Waste Management Company (SKB) plans to start construction of a repository in 2010 with operation at the facility scheduled to begin by 2017.

At Nuclear Waste: The Challenge of Underground Storage Disposal, Sweden’s office for Nuclear Waste Review (MKG) director Johan Swahn will take a closer look at Sweden’s latest concept for final storage of high level waste, (HLW) which will include a critical analysis of the status of the Swedish system. The process, known as KBS-3 involves the use of multiple barriers so that no deficiency in one barrier and no predictable geological or other change can endanger the isolation.

The French Senate has also recently approved a nuclear waste bill aimed at building a deep geologic repository in 2015, which is set to begin operations by 2025. Case studies to illustrate developments in France will include a detailed analysis of ANDRA’s Underground Research Laboratory in France. The conference will also address and track developments in other countries, focusing particularly on disposal and storage technology and programmes in the US and Japan.

Arena International’s Nuclear Waste: The Challenge of Underground Storage and Disposal conference will take place on 9 and 10 November in London.