Reactor constructors to pay for waste from UK nuclear renaissance, government says – but no mention of where to put it

Nils Bøhmer/Bellona

Publish date: February 22, 2008

Written by: Charles Digges

Companies building nuclear reactors as part of the UK’s newly approved new generation of nuclear power plants will have to meet the full cost of their future closure and clean-up, setting money aside from day one, the British government said Wednesay.

Bellona – which is opposed to the decision of Prime Minister Gordon Brown to proceed with the nuclear build-up – was only slightly comforted by the new requirements that plant builders incorporate waste and decommissioning costs into their plans.

The companies descending on Britain will have to provide detailed and cost-calculated plans to the government on what happens to a nuclear plant when its working life is over and how the waste and spent fuel they produce will be safely stored before they are allowed to begin building.

Further, they will have to start paying into an independently run special clean-up fund from the day they start generating electricity.

The government will appoint a number of experts from the nuclear, insurance and banking industries to sit on a Nuclear Liabilities Financing Assurance Board, which will monitor the companies’ decommissioning funds.

Repository still dim and distant

But while the obligation for nuclear builders to incorporate a decommissioning and waste storage strategy before they can break ground is a certain improvement over the UK government’s original plan to just loose nuclear construction, it still does not incorporate actual citing and building of a geologic repository for nuclear waste.

Geologic repositories, which are viewed as the single safest way to store nuclear waste, have been the promise of the nuclear industry for decades. But not one country that is to any degree dependent on nuclear energy has yet built one, and those that have attempted it have run up against tremendous costs and imprecise science.

Short term protection for taxpayers’ pocketbooks
Announcing draft guidance to be contained in the UK Energy Bill the Business Secretary John Hutton said in a statement: " It is in the national interest that we take every step to ensure that the taxpayer is protected from the clean up costs down the line. The Energy Bill and the guidance published today make clear that companies are liable by law to meet their full costs.

"Let me be clear – full means full. Funds will be sufficient, secure and independent, it will be a criminal offence not to comply with the approved arrangements and we are taking powers to guard against unforeseen shortfalls."

The ‘polluter pays’ guidance drafted by the British government is designed to give companies interested in building a new nuclear plant a clear idea of what they face.

Without repository other measures a waste

But Bellona nuclear physicist and nuclear industry expert Nils Boehmer pointed out that what companies do not face is any definite idea of where a geologic repository – which is under theoretical consideration by the British government, but has not been cited – will be built to accommodate this waste.

And the additional costs of building an underground chamber – as witness the Yucca Mountain misadventures of the United States, which is more than a decade behind schedule – can far overrun the costs of what many nuclear merchants lining up to do business in the UK can anticipate.

“What the British government proposed on Friday is a step in the right direction to make builders provide for waste and decommissioning- it is better than the build first and ask questions later policy that was established early this year,” said Boehmer.

“But the biggest question is still remains unsolved, and will remain so for decades – namely where to build the geologic repsoitory.”

No mention of this was made by the guidance introduced by Hutton on Friday.

Hutton said that while the government wanted to encourage companies to build new reactors, taxpayers should be protected from bearing the cost of the eventual clean-up effort.

Rising costs for current waste disposal
The projected bill for dealing with the waste from the UK’s existing nuclear programme has risen to £73bn ($143.5bn).

Britain has 16 nuclear plants but most are ageing. A third will be offline within the next 20 years and the last will close by 2035.

Nuclear power a bad choice for Britain
Britain’s rush to nuclear power is predicated on the argument that nuclear energy, with its zero greenhouse gas emissions, is the best hope for combating climate change. The UK also asserts nuclear will provide the panacea for the West’s Middle East oil addiction, and provide the UK with energy autonomy.

Several energy giants including British Energy and the French company Areva immediately expressed an interest in building a new generation of nuclear plants.

The first site could be approved within a year and could be operational by 2017. Four sites – Sizewell, Bradwell, Hinkley and Dungeness – are thought to be first choice locations for the new stations.

But a Bellona review of Britain’s policy shows that, by the time new nuclear power plants come on line in a decade or so, irreversible damage will already have been done to the climate, which will leave the world in a double bind of combating both that destruction and the inability to handle mountains of new radioactive waste.

Further, even if all the nuclear power plants that Britain envisions building came on line at once, they would have only a four percent impact on greenhouse gas emissions.

Most disappointing in Bellona’s view is that Britain is prime real estate for immediately available renewable energy solutions, such as wind and solar power – something the UK government had been keen on until the Brown government trained the spotlight on nuclear.

But the British government’s immediate focus is to quell public stirrings over taxes by reassuring them that the government will be footing the bill for nuclear decommissioning and waste from the countries new generation of reactors.

In its latest guidance the Government has for the first time said that it will eventually set a fixed unit price for the disposal of intermediate level waste and spent fuel which will be over and above expected costs to protect the taxpayer.

New companies will have to foot the bill for securely storing the waste they produce which will eventually join ‘legacy’ waste from old nuclear plants in an underground vault once a suitable site has been found – or rather if a suitable site is found.