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Storing up problems


Underground nuclear waste storage is back on the agenda for the UK and by all accounts will represent one of the biggest engineering challenges ever.

But before civil engineers get too excited about the work prospects, we should bear in mind that it is likely to take another 29 years to get the fi rst of these complex facilities through the site selection and planning process.

And according to the long awaited and much trailed Committee on Radioactive Waste Management (CoRWM) report published this week, the fi st repository could take until 2120 to fill up and seal off.

As with all things nuclear, the timescales, costs and qualities are mind-boggling. The concept of planning projects that will be completed two or three generations into the future is difficult to say the least.

Estimates suggest that up to fi ve such facilities could be required in the longer term to cope with the UK's expected growth in waste, each costing around £10bn and each involving construction of tunnels and secure vaults up to a kilometre underground.

Deciding where these new facilities should be sited is a major and as yet very much unresolved planning challenge.

And, as CoRWM points out, there are just as substantial short-term challenges in finding sufficient temporary locations for our nuclear waste stockpile while we wait for the new longer term facilities to come on line.

Remember that we are already engaged in a 20 to 30 year, £70bn programme to decommission the UK's stock of abandoned nuclear power plants, test facilities and research areas across some 20 sites.

Some would say it is the toughest challenge that engineers are likely to face anywhere in the world. .

The reality is that this work will produce a fairly constant stream of low, intermediate and high level radioactive waste that will have to be stockpiled securely for perhaps half a century or more before being transferred to a permanent home.

Last April the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority published its annual strategic plan, clarifying the challenges and processes expected to tackle them. Its fi rst job is to let contracts this year for the construction of a low level waste repository to act as a holding facility to enable decommissioning to get underway.

After that we will see contracts let for decommissioning of Dounreay and the Magnox reactor sites by the end of 2008 and then by 2012 the big one - Sellafield, which represents some 60% of the total spend and probably an even greater proportion of the total programme's risk and complexity.

Crucial to all this work will be the way in which the nuclear industry works with the local community. This will in many ways serve as a barometer for future storage projects.

While it is clear that communities around existing nuclear power stations and facilities are bound to them for employment and economic prosperity, it will be very interesting - regardless of the community incentives and 'rewards' on offer - to see how easy it will be to identify suitable sites for short and long term repositories.

The fact remains that for any new piece of infrastructure in the UK, winning planning approval is the biggest hurdle.

And if it is hard to build a new stretch of railway, reservoir or waste handling plant, the planning prospects for nuclear storage would appear to be in a new league.

Antony Oliver is NCE's editor

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