In policy shift, UK says it will store nuclear waste from foreign reprocessing customers

Publish date: December 21, 2004

Written by: Charles Digges

In a measure that overturns a 30-year-old policy not to keep intermediate-level foreign nuclear waste on its own soil, the British government has decided to store Japanese, German, Italian, Spanish, Swiss and Swedish nuclear waste in a bid to help pay for the United Kingdom’s (UK’s) own unresolved nuclear waste problems, government and media sources have reported.

The trade off under the new plan is that the UK will return larger amounts of high level radioactive waste to British Nuclear Fuel’s, (BNFL) overseas reprocessing customers while keeping larger amounts of intermediate level waste products for storage within the UK.

BNFL spokesman Alan Hughes welcomed the government’s decision and said it would mean up to 3,000 cubic metres of radioactive waste would now not need to be shipped back to its place of origin. Hughes also added that the carbon emissions that would be saved by reducing shipments of the bulkier low- to intermediate-level waste back to its countries of origin as an environmental benefit.

“We are sending extra high level waste, more than the customer would ordinarily have received,” under the old plan, said Hughes in a Monday telephone interview with Bellona Web. “This will result in much fewer shipments.”

According to a December release by the UK’s Department of Trade and Industry (DTI), which okayed the decision, the overall amount of intermediate level waste (ILW) to remain in Britain is estimated at 1.4 percent of Britain’s current overall ILW inventory. Hughes added that the increase in shipments of high level waste back to reprocessing customers will mean a corresponding decrease of up to 4 percent of high level waste remaining in the UK after the waste is shipped back to customers.

But the new practice also means that very long-lived, high-activity radioactive waste from Sellafield will be shipped by sea to Japan. The European continental customers of Germany, Switzerland, Spain, Sweden and Italy will receive it by ferries and trains. The Department of Trade and Industry has said in statements to the media that using armed police and transports mounted with guns to escort the high level waste minimises the risk.

The total distance that movements of intermediate-level waste will undergo will be reduced by some 715,000km, according to Nuclear Engineering magazine.

Although the volumes of waste in the UK will be greater under the new scheme, the amount of radioactivity in the UK will remain the same and the number of waste shipments will be dramatically reduced, said Hughes. “There will be no net radioactive burden for Britain,” he said.

The decision to retain ILW in Britain, announced in a House of Commons statement last week, was taken by Patricia Hewitt, the UK’s secretary for trade and industry. Hewitt hailed the shift in policy, saying in a statement that: “The benefits are both environmental and economic.”

She said the additional income for storing the ILW—up to £680 million—would be “used for nuclear clean-up which will result in savings for the UK taxpayer over the longer term.”

But there is still the problem of higher volumes of intermediate-level waste to address, said Nils Bøhmer, a nuclear physicist with Bellona.

“Although the UK will be carrying the same radioactive burden, there will be an increase in the volume of the waste to be stored,” said Bøhmer.

“The UK should therefore speed up its search for a final solution for this extra waste.”

Where to store the extra waste

But it remains as yet unclear as to where the increased amounts of ILW will be stored. Britain’s current storage site, at the Drigg sight in Cumbria near Sellafield, is according to almost all accounts nearly full. Following the governments announcement to keep more ILW, Britain’s Environmental Agency published plans for a review of authorisations held by BNFL for it’s radioactive storage site at Drigg.

Jean McSorley, an anti-nuclear campaigner for Greenpeace, told the Guardian that: “The government is trying to encourage Japanese utilities, and others, to sign more reprocessing contracts at Sellafield knowing that they will not have to have their nuclear waste returned.”

According to British media and government officials, the government has set up a committee to find a way of disposing of high- and intermediate-level nuclear waste safely. It has considered 20 options, including burying the waste in the Antarctic and firing it at the sun. No preferred method has been established, but the most likely method to be selected will be the less fantastic and more traditional approach of storing the waste above ground, or disposal below ground in geologic repositories, a spokesman for DTI told Bellona Web in a telephone interview Monday.

It should be noted however, that no country in the world is yet employing deep geologic repositories—widely regarded by scientists as the safest method for disposing of nuclear waste and spent nuclear fuel—for the deposit of nuclear, though the United States’ Yucca Mountain facility is the closest such facility to being put into use. Sweden is also close to breaking ground on its own facility, but Britain’s recent decision may deflate the urgency of such a project for Swedish authorities.

Currently overseas high and intermediate nuclear waste is stored at the Sellafield site either in the form of glass blocks, untreated highly active liquid waste, or in drums of solid waste. It is mixed up together with UK waste but British Nuclear Fuels keeps a log of how much radioactivity had been allocated to each country.

Government historically opposes keeping ILW

Previous to last week’s announcement, both Labour and Conservative governments had been in agreement about returning highly dangerous waste arising from the reprocessing of foreign nuclear fuel in the THORP facility at the Sellafield Plant in Cumbria to its country of origin along with the reconstituted fuel.

Successor governments have agreed with this decision, which amounts to shipping some 225 shipments of radioactive waste back to the countries that have sent their fuel for reprocessing to Britain. Last week’s decision, however, overturns that policy, meaning that the bulk of the radioactive waste will be kept and must somehow disposed of in Britain.

The notion of shipping intermediate-level waste back to countries of origin in place of high level waste—known on officially as “waste substitution”—has been under consideration by British officials since the early 1990s,and was codified in a 1995 white paper issued by DTI.

Opposition in Parliament

Opposing politicians and environmental groups have been quick to warn that Britain is running a high risk of becoming a “nuclear dumping ground.” Hughes flatly refuted this, saying British legislation prohibits the import of nuclear and radioactive waste purely for the purposes of storage unrelated to reprocessing activities.

Last week’s decision, he said, means that the foreign waste that will remain in Britain will be exchanged for significantly smaller quantities of waste of higher radioactivity produced by British reactors—up to 38 shipments worth. DTI officials told Bellona Web that this trade amounts to an equal quantity of radioactivity.

Critics in Parliament, though, pointed out the prospect of the British waste being hijacked by terrorists. Llew Smith, Labour MP for Blaenau Gwent, last week asked a written question of Ms Hewitt about her assessment of any increased terrorist threat.

“Intermediate level waste is bulky and difficult to handle but shipments of high level waste in smaller cannisters might be an attractive terrorist target,” he in remarks reported by the Guardian. DTI officials told Bellona Monday they were not aware if Hewitt had replied to Smith yet.

Gordon MacKerron, head of the government’s committee on radioactive waste management, said in remarks to British media: “Of course the volumes of nuclear waste we will have to deal with in Britain will be substantially greater […] but overall because of the large existing volume of UK waste it will not make a big difference in percentage terms.

“In practical terms it does not make a lot of difference to our overall nuclear waste problem.”