The best way to dispose of nuclear waste is to bury it deep underground. With the right mixture of geology and engineering, researchers think, it should be possible to contain highly radioactive material safely for the many thousands of years that it will take to decay.
Scientists agree on this. The industry thinks the same way, and so do regulators, politicians and most environmental groups. Yet despite the expert endorsement, plans for a deep geological repository in Britain effectively ground to a halt last week, after a local council voted against plans to look for a suitable site. Some scientists view the rejection as a failure of local politics, but they are wrong.
The vote over whether to take early plans for a deep geological repository to the next stage came at a meeting of Cumbria County Council on 30 January. The work would have involved test drilling and surveys to try to find a suitable location for the 1,000 cubic metres of high-level waste and several thousand tonnes of spent fuel currently held in the United Kingdom.
Cumbria has always been the preferred site. At the opposite end of the country from London, the county is already home to the Sellafield nuclear site that once produced plutonium for the nation’s nuclear weapons. Sellafield still houses most of the country’s nuclear waste, and so to build a repository nearby would be sensible, as long as the conditions are suitable.
The government has looked at Sellafield once before. In the 1980s, an independent group was set up to try to locate a geologically suitable waste dump in Britain. The body eventually settled on Sellafield, and set out to build a £200-million (US$315-million) ‘rock characterization facility’ at the site. In 1997, the proposal was abandoned after local planners rejected it — in part, because of fears that the facility might become a de facto waste dump.
This time, the government vowed to do things differently. The old executive was abolished and in its place new plans were laid out that promised transparency, democratic inclusivity and scientific scrutiny. The plans mirror those of nations such as Finland and Sweden, which are successfully building waste repositories.
So why has the process come up empty again? The answer is a lack of political will at almost every level of government. Critics say that the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, the body responsible for the repository, never did much to try to sell the facility to local residents or to address their concerns about what it might do to property prices or tourism. At a national level, politicians offered only the vaguest promise of ‘economic development’ in exchange for taking the waste. Meanwhile, local politicians advocated an alternative plan: to build more short-term storage at Sellafield, thereby creating jobs in the near-term without making long-term commitments.
“There are moral, financial and environmental reasons to make deep geological disposal work.”
The United Kingdom is not alone in its nuclear torpor. In the United States, efforts to build a repository are in the doldrums following a decision to withdraw from a proposed site at Yucca Mountain in Nevada. A panel has recommended a site-selection exercise similar to the one carried out in the United Kingdom, but there is little reason to believe that it could do any better. The very act of looking at places other than Yucca Mountain will require a change to legislation — unlikely given the nation’s current political paralysis.
In the meantime, the bills from neglecting the waste are piling up. The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission faces a costly lawsuit from states and utility companies seeking to have their nuclear waste taken away, as required by federal law. In the United Kingdom, the endless clean-up of Sellafield drags on; it has cost more than £67.5 billion so far, according to a report released this week by a parliamentary committee. At the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in Japan, spent fuel stored above ground at reactors is likely to have been a major source of contamination following the earthquake and tsunami in 2011. At the last count, the clean-up there is expected to cost trillions of yen, or hundreds of billions of dollars.
The bleak situation might encourage some on both sides of the Atlantic to search for a quick fix. Already, there is talk in the United Kingdom of officials trying to bypass Cumbria County Council by going directly to the local communities of Allerdale and Copeland, which supported the survey work. In the United States, some in industry would like to see the plans for a repository at Yucca Mountain revised, despite Nevada’s promise to fight it tooth and nail. Advocates of these solutions may feel that they are in the right, but they are guilty of political myopia: although it might be possible to nudge the projects forward briefly, they would quickly become bogged down again in a mire of legal and civil challenges.
It seems likely that both nations must start again. Scientists can help by reminding politicians that there are moral, financial and environmental reasons to make deep geological disposal work. Given the enormous costs of inaction, it is in everyone’s interest to keep trying.
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