Select Committee on Science and Technology Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum submitted by Dr Ian Farnan, Department of Earth Sciences, University of Cambridge


  It is clear that the Government has some very difficult decisions to make regarding the future of civil nuclear power generation in the UK. I am concerned that a policy of "wait and see" in the area of nuclear waste disposal that has been adopted in the past will be continued in the future with more advanced nuclear energy processes such as high burn-up uranium and mixed oxide fuel. In the past, this wait and see policy has led to the Government having to write-off £48 billion pounds worth of nuclear liabilities through the creation of the Liabilities Management Authority. In taking the problem of nuclear waste disposal out of the commercial sector through the creation of the LMA the Government has the opportunity to radically change the way nuclear waste management is handled in the UK. This is a once in 50 years opportunity to put in place institutions that will be independent of the "nuclear establishment" to determine standards and direct policy and research in this area. It is my opinion that independent institutions will be the only way to win over a sceptical public about the safety and security of immobilised nuclear material. The Government will need to make difficult decisions regarding the fate of different nuclear materials (plutonium in particular) and licensing of new nuclear fuels and must put in place a timetable by which decisions need to be taken. Technical know-how will be needed to make decisions at each stage and this will have to be specified. This is beginning to happen for the decommissioning of the older nuclear power stations but clear direction is needed for the ultimate fate of the long-lived radionuclides that make up the real legacy that will be left in the earth. I believe we should not miss this opportunity to move away from the paradigm of pragmatic solutions to nuclear waste based on narrow commercial interest of nuclear companies. We have a national problem that deserves a well-researched and thought out approach.

  The current technology and thinking for the disposal high level waste (HLW) was developed in the late 1950's and 1960's. This process emerged at the same time as legacy wastes were accumulating from the emerging nuclear programme. This happened within the mindset of the development of civil nuclear power as a major resource for the nation and nuclear material for weapons that would guarantee our independent security. Waste disposal was seen as subordinate to the greater good of the technical advances. A more modern approach is clearly needed now and this can begin with the removal of the commercial interest in current disposal methods and a move towards a National (or even European) approach.

10 October 2002

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