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


APPENDIX 39

Memorandum submitted by the Mineral Physics Group, Department of Earth Sciences, University of Cambridge

  Our comments relate to the role of nuclear power within the development of a non-carbon fuel economy and the ultimate fate of long-lived radionuclides arising from nuclear electricity generation.

  The ultimate disposal of radionuclides produced in nuclear fission has always been the final and unfashionable part of the nuclear fuel cycle. As such it has been neglected in terms of research effort when compared with reactor technology and fuel development. There needs to be a concerted effort in the UK to develop expertise and capacity to remedy this situation if we are to continue to use nuclear fission to generate electricity. In terms of public perception/acceptance of nuclear power, we feel it will be essential to offer the public a fresh approach to the problem rather than hope to be more persuasive about existing methods. We recommend the following steps to ensure that any new nuclear build/fuel licensing is also presented to the public with an assured route to the safe ultimate disposal of radionuclides.

    (i)  The establishment of a new independent authority to oversee the ultimate disposal of nuclear waste.

    (ii)  This authority would have a duty to develop the base of UK expertise in this area through development of UK based research programmes and Anglo-European and Anglo-US research programmes. A separate budget should be made available. This research needs to be perceived as independent and not commissioned by nuclear companies that may well be viewed negatively by the public.

    (iii)  The new aspect to a disposal route should involve all aspects of the disposal process including repository design and location. However, this should be based on a bottom up approach so that new methods for ultimate waste forms are developed. These should provide the greatest degree of radionuclide immobilisation over geologic time scales as a starting point for repository design, rather than depending on the geological integrity of a repository design, rather than depending on the geological integrity of a repository location to protect the environment.

    (iv)  The new authority must have a well-defined relationship with the liabilities management authority, NII, DEFRA, EA and other interested parties so that a coherent policy for nuclear waste may be developed.

  We feel that the following more detailed points should be drawn to the committee's attention:

    (a)  A policy of "waiting for technology to advance" for nuclear waste has not worked over the last 50 years. The Government has been forced to "write off" £48 billion to cover the accumulated inventory of nuclear waste. The treatment of high level waste (HLW) has only produced around 2000 containers of vitrified fission products. A large inventory of separated Pu awaits licensing decisions as to whether it is deemed to be waste or not.

    (b)  We note that new nuclear build will almost double the existing nuclear waste legacy over the next 50 years if measured in terms of activity (Bequerels) rather than total volume of wastes (ILW + HLW), which may only increase by 10%. This indicates the importance of a robust HLW/actinide immobilisation policy in the future.

    (c )  The actinide waste from "twice through" plutonium from reprocessing or weapons grade plutonium incorporated into fuel will require specific tailored ceramic waste forms. These have yet to be developed or thought about.

    (d)  It seems unlikely that the public will accept the new fuels (MOx) or new nuclear build without the clear route to disposal outlined for them. We believe the public will be loath to accept another "wait and see" policy that will eventually lead to another massive public write off and another legacy of nuclear waste passed to future generations.

    (e)  Ceramic alternatives for the immobilisation of nuclear waste are almost universally considered the best option for actinide wastes (U/Pu). Their appeal is the proven durability of their natural mineral analogues to retain radioactive elements over geological time scales. Even for fission products, 20 year-old formulations of multiphase ceramics were two to three orders of magnitude more durable than borosilicate glass in long-term dissolution tests.

    (f)  The need to move in stages towards repository disposal will require a change in public perception of the disposal process. A process where the biosphere is effectively protected by the waste form itself and not the surrounding geology of the repository site is a simple idea. This can be presented to the public in a much more convincing way than complex arguments involving the geology, hydrology and seismology surrounding "Geological repositories". The changing interpretations about the geological suitability of repository sites and differing opinions of experts only serve to increase public unease at the location of a repository. We note that Yucca Mountain has been re-designated by USDOE as an underground repository rather than a geological repository, thus moving away from the idea that the geology of the site ensures the protection of the biosphere.

3 November 2002



 
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