BRITAIN'S NUCLEAR industry is building long term above ground storage bunkers for radioactive waste because the government has failed to come up with alternative options, a senior nuclear engineer said this week.
All the UK's nuclear licensed sites are building, or have already built, stores for intermediate level radioactive waste with design lives well in excess of 100 years.
They have been forced to act because the government has dragged its feet over deciding whether to approve plans to store waste deep underground.
The move effectively pre-empts a government decision backing indefinite surface storage, said UKAEA Dounreay's head of engineering, Sandy McWhirter.
UKAEA is Britain's nuclear decommissioning agency.
'What government is going to opt for deep disposal if industry has already been forced to provide long term surface storage?
At Dounreay we are going for a 300 year facility, ' said McWhirter.
Sites building above ground storage include those owned by UKAEA, reprocessing and generator firms BNFL and BNFL Magnox, and the Atomic Weapons Establishment at Aldermaston.
Controversial plans for a deep rock repository, to be built and managed by nuclear waste specialist Nirex, were shelved in 1996. Environmental lobby groups Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace strongly oppose the option and favour storing waste above ground, where it can be monitored and, if necessary, radiological containment can be improved.
But within the nuclear industry permanent disposal of waste deep underground is still seen as the optimum technical solution.
Two years ago the House of Lords select committee on science and technology report, Management of nuclear waste, stated that a deep rock repository was the safest and most viable of all present options (NCE 24 March 1999). The strategy is also favoured by regulator the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate and the Environment Agency.
The government has so far failed to launch a public consultation on options, promised after the House of Lords report. Any government decision - whether for surface storage or disposal - is likely to trigger public antagonism.
A senior engineer at BNFL Magnox accused the government of fudging the issue.
'It is a question that has to be answered and the sooner the better for all concerned, ' he said.
Nirex science director Alan Hooper said a consultation would take anywhere between 25 and 35 years. The House of Lords estimated consultation could take up to 50 years. If the government decided to build a deep repository, construction would take a further six to 10 years.
'If the government decided to go for a deep repository it would not be available for many, many years and most organisations in the UK are far advanced with decommissioning, ' said McWhirter. Dounreay needs to have intermediate level waste stores in place by 2008.
Management of nuclear waste can be found at: www. parliament. the-stationeryoffice. co. uk