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UK must contain nuclear

The UK has got a massive nuclear waste problem. But it still does not really know what to do about it.

Last week's report by the House of Lords Select Committee on Science & Technology into the management of nuclear waste is honest and pragmatic. But it is clearly resigned to the fact that solving the nuclear waste problem is fraught with difficulty.

The paper describes the varied strategies over the last 40 years for dealing with the toxic by-product of the UK's civil and defence nuclear industries as 'fragmented' and 'ad-hoc'. There has really been no coherent strategy at all, it concedes. Today the UK has a stockpile of more than 71,000m3 of waste, 1,650m3 of which is classified as high level. In 30 years the UK will be sitting on nearly 600,000m3, of which 2,500m3 will be high level.

The select committee recommends deep rock emplacement as the best option for dealing with the UK's dirty nuclear laundry. If it holds sway, the UK will shoulder the responsibility and deal with its waste at home. This is, in a sense, progress: Twenty years ago the UK was happily ditching high and intermediate level waste in the Pacific Ocean, to the dismay and horror of Pacific islanders.

But as a sign of how few and how desperate the options for disposing of nuclear waste are, the committee seriously discussed options that ventured into the realms of science fiction - as well as those showing it is still quite happy to dump waste on somebody else's doorstep. These included torpedo-shaped canisters filled with waste dropped into the sediment of deep sea trenches, or drilling kilometres-deep repository boreholes in the same dark, inaccessible depths.

Alternatively, the committee has looked at using the heat radiated by high-level waste to melt holes in Antarctic ice sheets. Canisters would 'move towards the centre of the earth and would not re-emerge for hundreds of millions of years'. And it investigated ejection into space, noting that: 'It would only be feasible with very reliable space craft, because an accident at launch or shortly after could release large amounts of radioactive material into the atmosphere, with huge health and environmental consequences.'

Such options may well become reality in the future. But the truth is that now, if it is not to become an international pariah, sitting on its own nuclear waste is the only option open to the UK.

Entombing waste deep in rock is a plan backed by the Environment Agency, Health & Safety Executive and nuclear waste company Nirex. Environmental groups are less enthusiastic. They would prefer to continue storing waste at the surface where it can be easily monitored and managed.

The Lords report proposes a long research and investigation phase - up to 50 years - to find and develop the right sites for deep rock repositories. Design will have to reduce the risk of contamination leading to 'fatal or genetic' consequences for health to less than one in a million, it says.

The report quotes one of its witnesses: 'The public should not be expected to have an opinion. There are many things for which, quite legitimately, the public looks to Government to make up the mind of 56 million people. Nuclear energy is a matter that is largely in Government hands.'

But environmental protests in recent years show that the public is very conscious and very opinionated. Not only will the Government need to engineer physical solutions to the nation's nuclear waste problem, it will have to engineer an open and informative relationship with its people.

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