The UK has been accumulating nuclear waste for over 60 years from its 16 nuclear power plant reactors and other radioactive waste sources. This waste is currently stored at 30 locations around the country, but in the long term it will need to be housed at a safer site, deep underground in a geological repository, away from the public.
However, the government is still many decades away from securing such a site. Meanwhile stocks are piling up.
The government consultation process has been marred by delays, lack of clarity and controversy. Last year, after a county council in Cumbria scuppered plans for a £12bn high-level waste repository near the Sellafield nuclear complex, the government caused outrage by transferring the final say for approval of a nuclear waste disposal site from the more local-level county council to the higher district council.
Across the English Channel, 75% of electricity in France is derived from nuclear power; the country’s research on nuclear waste is considered world-leading. It is also home to the world’s first underground nuclear waste research facility, built in 1999 by Andra – an independent state agency tasked with managing the country’s nuclear waste disposal – and located in the east of France near Bure.
In 2010 an underground geological repository site for high-level nuclear reactor waste was identified 5km from the underground facility. After public consultation was undertaken and a formal application for the site was submitted this year, a clear path for commissioning the construction of the geological site in 2025 has been set out.
Learning from France: importance of public consultation
Professor at the Royal Academy of Engineering and Chair at the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority in Radioactive Waste Management (NDA), Neil Hyatt says the next step for the UK nuclear waste disposal plan is to identify a suitable geological formation in which to construct an underground facility to store the waste.
This is done by characterising the sub-surface rocks thoroughly to demonstrate that they will be a suitable barrier to migration of radioactivity. Then, a robust safety case needs to be made in a peer-reviewed document, say Hyatt.
Big questions remain over the design of the plant and the future of the nuclear power industry in the UK.
"Finally, but, arguably, most importantly, we need public support for the choice of disposal site and confidence in the supporting safety case," he adds.
Professor Graham Fairhall, chief science and technology officer at the National Nuclear Laboratory in the UK, which provides independent advice to the government, says in the past the process in the UK has been mishandled.
"The recent experience in Cumbria demonstrated some lack of clarity in the decision-making process, uncertainty over the package of available benefits for the community and need for better information to allow volunteering communities to make a decision," he says.
Also, news that a low-level waste repository a few miles away from Sellafield is expected to leak if preventative measures aren’t taken will not have boosted public support.
Andra’s national director Gerald Ouzounian says the success of a large-scale surface nuclear waste facility, which is an hour’s drive from the proposed site of the underground geological facility, gave the French public confidence in the organisation’s abilities.
"People can see and measure our achievements, how we work at what we do, these are very important things," says Ouzounian.
In 1993, a year after the search for a volunteer community was initiated, the French government had around 30 candidate sites, far more than the UK, which whittled down prospective locations to just four sites.
To open up the consultation process, the French national commission decided to have other forms of debate through the internet and papers, which was a "huge success", Ouzounian says.
Ouzounian does acknowledge, however, that there was, and still is, opposition from the public in France.
"The key factors are, I think, to have both national and local support," says Ouzounian. "Secondly, [you need] to have a clear and transparent approach."
The French Government offers an increasing monetary incentive to communities willing to host a waste facility. The current level is €13m.
In the UK communities will receive up to £1m per involved community, per year, during the early siting process. This increases to £2.5m per year, per community for investigative work.
The NDA’s managing director Bruce McKirdy has promised that when identifying a new site, the government will "explain, discuss and respond to the many questions the public will inevitably have, building relationships with communities around the country, so that they have trust and confidence that we are working in partnership with them throughout this exercise".
Investing in research and development
Forging ahead with a nuclear waste programme requires not only public approval for a site, but sound science to back it.
With the risk of blackouts looming, will the country be able to balance energy supply and demand?
"From my perspective, the key lesson we can draw from the French programme is having a well-funded research programme to develop the fundamental science needed to support the safety case for radioactive waste disposal," says Hyatt. "We have a very good idea of the research needed, but there are limited funds and a lot of work to do."
"Ultimately, confidence in the safety case for radioactive waste disposal will depend on the quality, depth and breadth of underpinning science – we can’t afford to skimp on this or the supporting funds," he adds.
Professor Kath Morris of the Research Centre for Radwaste and Decommissioning at Manchester University concurs. "A successful programme will have safety delivered through sound science and engineering at its core," she says.
The French nuclear waste disposal plan has been backed by 15 years of research, good funding and strong tools for transparency, such as the National Inventory, which is published every three years and reports all amounts and the location of all types of waste, and the National Management Plan, which describes solutions for types of waste, as well as those requiring some development and research.
Ouzounian says that up until 2005, the most recent available figures, the programme has spent around €14bn to €16bn. Andra will release more figures, including the expected cost of the underground geological facility, in the coming weeks, according to Ouzounian. In 2002 the World Nuclear Association expected the cost to be around €15bn, but by now this figure has likely doubled.
According to the UK Department for Energy and Climate Change’s 2012/13 budget, £1.6bn is spent on managing the various plants and storage facilities at Sellafield, and dealing with "nuclear legacy" issues costs around £2.5bn a year.
Going forward – the UK’s next step
Morris says she agrees that the UK "can (and do) learn from the French implementation process."
"I have led a trip to the Andra facilities in France for a team of UK research scientists and seeing the bricks and mortar associated with their underground research laboratory was really exciting," she says.
However, she cautions: "I am also aware that implementation of disposal in France is considered an ongoing process and there are a series of national level reviews which will continue into the future and we cannot predict the outcome of those reviews yet."
From 2014 to 2025 Ouzounian says the French programme will work on considerations from the last public review and spend a few years demonstrating the facility works with a pilot industrial phase before filling it with industrial waste.
Andra is also going to put in place a reversal plan in case scientists’ predictions are wrong.
Fairhall says the UK is working closely with other international waste management organisations, including those in France, Sweden and Finland, through an EU technology platform (Implementing Geological Disposal of Radioactive Waste Technology Platform, or IGDTP), to share knowledge, experience and information.
Currently, there are discussions happening about Anglesey being host community for an underground nuclear waste disposal facility; a replacement nuclear power station is due to be built there. Talks are in the early stages.
The UK can undoubtedly learn from the nuclear waste programme of its Gallic neighbours and no doubt other nuclear waste projects around the world. But Morris warns that the UK cannot "translate lock stock and barrel the French model to the UK wastes". She also points out that no country has yet implemented geological waste disposal of high-level waste. It’s an ongoing process.
"I do know, however," Morris adds, "that delaying management of the current legacy of radioactive wastes is not an option – we have the wastes."