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
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
(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
(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