Britain mining Sweden for radwaste burial techniques

Publish date: March 18, 2008

Written by: Charles Digges

The British government is for the first time discussing concrete plans to dispose of the waste that will come of its recently nuclear energy push and – after years of procrastination – is looking to the Nordic countries for guidance in reviving its aim to build a geologic repository, officials in London said.

Primarily, the UK’s Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) – which is charged with the UK’s atomic clean-up – is looking to Sweden and Finland, which lead the world in research into radioactive waste disposal and Sweden has agreed to share its expertise with England.

Despite the environmental step in the right direction, however, the big nuclear build that the UK has billed as the solution to its greenhouse gas emissions will fail, even in the best case, to produce a sufficient number of plants to have any impact on its CO2 output.

Further, the enormous cost of building a radioactive waste repository underground ignores England’s favourable climate for introducing readily available and cheaper energy alternatives such as wind and a coal fired energy industry that is ripe for carbon capture and storage technology.

The time lag in actually building a UK repository notwithstanding, geologic repositories are viewed by most in the nuclear industry and the environmental movement as the only safe method for storing highly radioactive waste – and Britain has plenty, 70 percent of which is currently stored at the country’s embattled Sellafield site in Cumbria.

Sweden will later this year choose a site for an underground repository for its own highly radioactive waste, with construction costs estimated to be around SKr 15 billion to SKr 20 billion ($2.4 billion to $3.2 billion)

Britain following Sweden’s lead at a distance
Despite being several years behind Sweden’s blueprints, the UK government has, since first announcing its forecasted nuclear power build up, said it too will bury it’s high level waste including spent nuclear fuel (SNF).

A UK government white paper expected later this year will set out the government’s plans, which will include asking communities to volunteer to host the repository. Plans must be nailed down by the end of 2009, the Financial Times reported.

As the majority of England’s nuclear waste is in Sellafield, many industry experts think the repository should be built nearby to avoid transporting high level waste across the country.

Cumbria could agree this year – if the price is right
Sellafield residents are generally supportive of the nuclear industry, and the Sellafield site is the hometown factory and the area’s main employer going for two and three generations.

But local politicians stress that if the community puts itself forward it would have to be rewarded with extra cash, including for marketing the area to tourists.

Jamie Reed, the area’s MP, told the Financial Times that the community would talk to the government about hosting the waste dump, but it could not be forced to consent.

"If the government tries to put anyone’s arm up their backs they will get a negative response, and if anyone tries to penny-pinch they will get a negative response," the paper quoted Reed as saying.

The region should receive substantial funding in return for taking the facility, Reed said. "At least £1billion ($2 billion) – that’s the kind of social and economic incentive that would be looked at. We could see significant progress (on finding a site) this year, but assuming environmental safety and public health is not an issue, it comes down to the investment package that accompanies it."

The British Department of the Treasury is clear in wanting to encourage other communities to step forward and volunteer to host the nuclear waste repository, thus deflating Sellafield’s leverage and demands for substantial compensation.

It is understood that the Treasury hopes to encourage another community to express an interest in hosting the repository, to give Sellafield less leverage to demand compensation. But although sites such as Wylfa in north Wales and Dounreay in northern Scotland have been put forth for discussion, it is not yet clear if any other community will come forward.

British learning Swedish technology and public relations
In order that the NDA learn more about building a repository, its executives have visited Sweden’s nuclear waste handling company SKB several times and a Swedish delegation is due to visit Sellafield in the next few months, said the Financial Times.

Sweden is slated to build its repository in either Oskars-hamn, in southern Sweden, or Östhammar, just north of Stockholm, both of which are already home to nuclear reactors. SKB said the communities that volunteered to host the waste were primarily motivated by job creation and were not expecting extra government funding.

When completed, the Swedish nuclear waste repository could well be the world’s first given the drum-beat of delays, budget short-falls, bad science and souring of public opinion that have plagued the United States’ nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain in the state of Nevada.

Equally as important as the engineering that goes into building a nuclear waste repository, the NDA is learning about community relations were the British site will be built. Sweden’s Äspö underground laboratory, where the SKB tests ways to dispose of nuclear waste, is one of the area’s top tourist attractions, drawing around 11,000 visitors a year, including school trips.

"It is very important for us to be open and transparent, with no secrets," SKB’s Linnea Sandwall told the newspaper.