Nuclear waste: Public should have a say in plans to dump radioactive material | Science and technology news


Scientists hoping to bury nuclear waste deep underground have vowed the plans will not go through without local support.

Highly radioactive material, equivalent to the size of 6,500 double-decker buses, is currently stored above ground at 20 UK sites. Some silos begin to deteriorate with age.

Nuclear Waste Services (NWS), a government agency, says burial in bedrock offers a long-term solution safe from terrorism, war and natural disasters.

It is consulting with the coastal communities of Allerdale, Mid-Copeland and South Copeland in Cumbria and Theddlethorpe in Lincolnshire on the construction of a geological disposal facility (GDF) below the seabed.

Prof Neil Hyatt, NWS chief scientist, told Sky News: “If we come up with a convincing case, if we come up with the evidence to show it’s safe and the community wants to go ahead, a decision can be made to do it.

“But a community has the right of withdrawal.”

The government is betting on a new generation of nuclear power plants, with Chancellor Jeremy Hunt announcing plans for small reactors in this week’s budget.

With public consultations on the location of a GDF likely to continue for several more years, waste continues to accumulate in surface silos.

There is no plan B if there is no willing community.

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Prof Hyatt said: “If we were not successful (to win support) it would be up to the government to consider how to proceed. But internationally it is the solution.

“We are confident that this is a safe way of disposing of radiological waste.”

What happens when the plans get the green light?

If the plan gets the green light, radioactive waste would be taken by train into a huge maze of tunnels.

Heavy-duty canisters were sealed in bedrock, capped with clay to keep water out, and the entire complex sealed when full.

Double-layer metal canisters in which nuclear waste is sealed in Finland

Scientists say the facility would be stable over the hundreds of thousands of years it would take for the radioactive material to become safe.

“I want to make sure the waste is in the safest place it can be”

The local community showed overwhelming support at a community engagement event in Seascale, a village just two miles from the Sellafield nuclear site in Cumbria.

David Moore, a farmer and local Conservative Councillor, said: “Sellafield has brought great economic benefits.

“But the community recognizes that there is rubbish there now and it needs to be disposed of in a safe manner.

“We cannot pass it down through generations. I have seven grandchildren and I want to make sure the trash is in the safest place it can be.”

Sellafield nuclear power station in 1990
Sellafield nuclear power station in 1990

But there is also resistance.

Keith Hudson, a retired science teacher, supports geological disposal as the safest solution.

But he fears groundwater and Cumbria’s complex geology make the site too risky.

“They know the geology is better in the east of the country where they could build a big enough GDF, and do it faster, better and cheaper,” he said.

But unlike Cumbria, there is no nuclear industry near the proposed GDF site in Lincolnshire and it could well be more difficult to take the case to the local community.

“That’s the problem with the whole process. It’s not driven by science or business, it’s driven by politics,” Hudson said.

Less than one in a million chance of radioactivity returning to the surface

NWS insists any water in bedrock off the Cumbrian coast is static or slow moving and poses no risk.

It states that the design principle for the GDF is that there is less than a one in a million chance of radioactivity returning to the surface and causing harm to humans.

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Independent scientists agree that this is the best solution to the nuclear industry’s legacy.

Prof Claire Corkhill, who studies how nuclear material is broken down at the University of Sheffield, said: “We’re not just pouring bright green goo into the ground.

“If you think of the Russian doll concept, you have the waste in a container surrounded by a buffering material that acts like a sponge to mop up water. All of this is surrounded by solid rock.

“The only way we can stably control our radioactive waste in a safe and predictable manner is deep underground.”

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The world’s first nuclear waste grave

Finland has almost completed building a geological grave for its nuclear waste. France, Sweden, Switzerland and Canada also have plans.

The UK hopes to have a GDF operational between 2050 and 2060.

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