Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Turning Wales a (Radioactive) Shade of Green

When the fuel for your nuclear reactor is spent, where does it go?
The Welsh Government are consulting on changes to their policy.
(Pic : American Nuclear Society)

"Radioactive waste" - two words that conjure images of deformities, lead boxes several feet thick and fluorescent green sludge.

The truth is a bit different. Most radioactive waste is a result of medicine – leftovers from radiography and radiotherapy - and is so low-grade it can sometimes be (carefully) disposed of at landfill sites. Then of course there's the higher-grade waste associated with nuclear energy and nuclear weapons.

Disposal of radioactive waste is – believe it or not – a devolved matter, though there's high-level cooperation between the respective governments of the UK.

Back in April, the Welsh Government launched a consultation on their radioactive waste policies, asking people if said policies needed a review. After carrying out that review, the Welsh Government have launched another consultation (pdf) which includes its preferred options for future disposal of radioactive waste, though no final decisions have been made.

The Current Standpoint

Most of the UK's high-grade nuclear waste is reprocessed or stored at Sellafield,
but with so much fuel reaching the end of its life, a new option is required.
(Pic : BBC)
In 2006, the independent Committee for Radioactive Waste Management (CoRWM) recommended that their preferred method of dealing with the high-grade waste resulting from the current generation of nuclear power plants was geological disposal (aka. storing it permanently in an excavated hole circa 500-1000ft deep). In 2013, CoRWM reaffirmed this as their favoured option.

In 2010, the UK Government's approach was for communities to volunteer to store high-grade waste for the whole of the UK in exchange for "goodies/investment". Communities in Cumbria (where most of the UK's radioactive waste is stored) and Kent considered it but ultimately it was rejected.

The Scottish Government took a different view and would prefer surface-level storage near the place where the waste was produced. The Welsh Government sat on the fence and neither supported or opposed geological disposal, though if a Welsh community were to "volunteer", the Welsh Government would reconsider their position.

What concerns did the consultation raise?

Some respondents believed it was irresponsible to support Wylfa B whilst opposing
the storage of nuclear waste in Wales - and the Welsh Government now agree.
(Pic : Cyndeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg)
It's irresponsible to reject storage of nuclear waste whilst supporting Wylfa B – The support for Wylfa B is one of the main reasons, in the Welsh Government's own words, that they decided to review their policies. The Welsh Government believe, in principle, that storing/disposing nuclear waste in Wales would be consistent with supporting nuclear energy.

It would be irresponsible to store nuclear waste above ground due to threats from terrorism and natural disasters, but burying it won't solve these issues either – The Welsh Government "note" the CoRWM recommendation that geological disposal is the best long-term solution to the problem, and they say that there's "no evidence" that surface storage would "provide a safer long-term answer".

Concerns over the cost to the Welsh Government – UK policy means the costs of nuclear waste disposal falls on the operator. State funding is provided via the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) and Radioactive Waste Management (RWM) and the Welsh Government are confident there would be no additional cost to themselves.

Liabilities following an accident – It's the UK Parliament's responsibility to approve/pay compensation as a result of nuclear accidents above and beyond compensation paid out by operators.

The Welsh Government should reconsider its support for new nuclear power stations – The Welsh Government rather glibly say that the issue of whether new nuclear power stations should be supported or not falls outside the consultation. They believe nuclear energy is a "reliable low-carbon source that complements renewables....bringing significant long-term economic benefits".

The best option is not to produce more radioactive waste – The Welsh Government believe that high-grade waste can be stored safely, and there's a backlog of "legacy waste" from 60 years of nuclear power that still needs to be disposed of. The presence of legacy waste also means that a decision has to be made now to comply with EU radioactive waste directives.

Incidents at Yucca Mountain and WIPP in the US prove geological disposal is unsafe – The Welsh Government raised concerns with CoRWM about these incidents, but they don't believe that this  proves geological disposal is harmful.

"Bribing" communities to host radioactive waste is wrong – The fact some of the communities that came forward to host a facility withdrew from the process without penalty demonstrates "the robustness of the right to withdraw". However, the Welsh Government evaded the issue of whether or not it was "bribing" or not.

The Welsh Government should be responsible for "Welsh" waste – Responsibility for disposal of radioactive waste doesn't mean waste will be disposed in Wales. At the moment, the only radioactive waste stored in Wales is low-grade and often in low volumes.

The Welsh Government's Choice

The Welsh Government now support "geological disposal" and
don't rule out Wales hosting such a facility.
(Pic :
Justification for a policy change
  • "Storage" requires an ongoing supervision and is only a short to medium-term option, so "disposal" is preferred to remove the need for supervision.
  • There are no proposals to reprocess nuclear waste from Wylfa B, so management of that waste is required. The current Welsh Government policy of opposing management of nuclear waste in Wales contradicts this and will need to be changed.
  • There's already a considerable amount of nuclear waste requiring disposal even before taking Wylfa B into account. Therefore, there's a duty on this generation to ensure the process of disposing the waste is started now.

The Welsh Government's Preferred Option
  • A nuclear waste policy that's consistent with supporting new nuclear power stations/Wylfa B.
  • A policy that meets EU directives, and the Welsh Government believes that will not be met by surface or near-surface storage.
  • A policy that takes the needs and safeguarding of future generations into account.
  • Subsequently, the Welsh Government's preferred option is "geological disposal". Though they say they've taken no firm decisions on this and it doesn't mean it'll be stored in Wales.

A Radioactive Issue
This is the reason you shouldn't make up nuclear
energy policy on the back of a fag packet.

The legal difference (as defined in the EU directive) between "disposal" and "storage" is that if nuclear waste is "stored" there's an expectation that it will be recovered in the future. "Disposal" means it's left there and presumably sealed in somehow, never to be returned to again.

"Stored" is a better word to describe both because wherever it's put, it's going to be there probably a lot longer than humans will be around. The half-life of plutonium waste, for example, is around 24,000 years. For some uranium isotopes produced/used in nuclear energy it's around 245,000 years.

To put that in perspective, 24,000 years ago modern humans had just started colonising North America and the last ice age was at its peak.

That's one hell of a legacy for "Future Generations" we're going to leave.

Wanting nuclear power without dealing with the waste is a lot like wanting to eat haute cuisine without eventually having to take a dump.

Wales is going to be very high up the list of potential nuclear waste disposal sites because, objectively speaking, sites have to be : geographically isolated, economically depressed (to be easily won over by the promise of investment), close to a producers of high-grade waste (to minimise transport), home to communities that are used to living with nuclear energy and both geologically and hydrologically stable.

Anglesey ticks all the boxes.

The Welsh Government now openly admit their support for Wylfa B is implicit support for the disposal of high-grade nuclear waste in Wales (completely contradicting statements by the First Minister in the Senedd chamber). For once they're being honest.

That doesn't mean it'll happen, but certain politicians and parties will have to admit that on the record too because eggs are heading for faces, and there's little room for backtracking without looking like utter pillocks.


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