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The clean-up quandary of nuclear waste

A hulking building, B30 sits at the heart of Sellafield, a sprawling nuclear site on the coast of Cumbria in north-west England. When the small device hooked to the pocket of my guide’s overalls begins to click as we draw closer to the building, my heart skips a beat.

The Sellafield nuclear processing site in Cumbria in the United Kingdom. A number of Asian and European countries are planning reactors to provide low-carbon power and secure their energy needs — but a permanent solution for high-level waste remains elusive. Photo: Reuters

The Sellafield nuclear processing site in Cumbria in the United Kingdom. A number of Asian and European countries are planning reactors to provide low-carbon power and secure their energy needs — but a permanent solution for high-level waste remains elusive. Photo: Reuters

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A hulking building, B30 sits at the heart of Sellafield, a sprawling nuclear site on the coast of Cumbria in north-west England. When the small device hooked to the pocket of my guide’s overalls begins to click as we draw closer to the building, my heart skips a beat.

Inside B30 lies some of the most radioactive waste in the world. It is one of four pond and silo facilities built in the 1950s and 1960s to store irradiated fuel from Britain’s first atomic reactors.

Over the years, it has accumulated large amounts of waste, sludge from corroded fuel casings and other debris that has blown in. B30 is as nasty as they come — hence the clicks from my guide’s pocket gadget, which measures the amount of radiation to which we are exposed. Just a glimpse of B30 is an unsettling reminder of Britain’s nuclear legacy.

Today, the site’s main focus is on managing waste safely and cleaning up the legacy of the past. The estimated cost is £67.5 billion (S$130 billion) and rising. It is no easy task. More than 50 years after the world’s first commercial nuclear power plants started operating in the United Kingdom and the United States, the tens of thousands of tonnes of spent nuclear fuel in the world still has to find a permanent home.

ASIAN STATES BUILDING REACTORS

The absence of a permanent solution for high-level waste is one of the biggest challenges facing the industry as it tries to recover from the deadly disaster at Japan’s Fukushima plant in 2011.

Several governments scaled back their expansion plans, with Germany announcing plans to close all its reactors. The International Energy Agency (IEA) last year predicted that global nuclear generating capacity would reach 580GW in 2035 — a 10 per cent drop from its forecast a year before.

Yet, new reactors, and more waste, are not far off. Asian governments are leading the charge but, in Europe, several countries, including the UK, are progressing with plans for new plants.

As a sustained source of low-carbon electricity, many governments have bet their future energy security on nuclear, arguing that it will help them meet tough carbon-reduction targets and keep the lights on. A recent IEA report revealed that Japan’s emissions jumped 5.8 per cent last year as the country imported and burnt large amounts of liquefied natural gas and coal to compensate for the loss of electricity from nuclear plants.

Alvin Weinberg, an American nuclear pioneer, famously said that atomic power represents a Faustian bargain: A valuable source of electricity that carries with it an obligation to deal with the waste.

“New nuclear should not go ahead until we have sorted out the waste problem,” says Dr Doug Parr, Chief Scientist at Greenpeace, adding that the environmental organisation is “concerned about a new round of spent fuel set to be created”.

Supporters insist that using the waste issue as an argument against building reactors is wrong-headed, and that new plants and their waste will be different.

BURY IT?

Waste is categorised by its radioactivity level: High, intermediate and low. The volume of high-level waste, mostly liquid by-products from reprocessing radioactive spent fuel from reactors, is small, but it is the biggest problem.

Reprocessing separates the useful fuel for recycling from waste. In the UK, the high-level waste accounts for only 0.02 per cent of the total volume of nuclear waste but for 95 per cent of total radioactivity. No man-made container would survive the tens of thousands of years it will take for high-level waste to decay to safe levels. But where to put the remnants of the industry’s past?

One answer is to bury it deep underground. “There is a very strong international consensus that you can dispose of high-level waste in a deep- mine geological disposal site,” says Dr Daniel Metlay, a staff member at the US Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board. “By year 2030, it’s likely that we (the world) will have at least one of these.”

Regulators have developed mathematical computer models that can predict the behaviour of the waste — but there is no way of knowing with certainty how it will behave.

Today, apart from Finland and Sweden, most countries have not agreed on a site for their high-level waste.

In the US, the issue has stalled after President Barack Obama withdrew support for a facility in the Yucca Mountains in Nevada. Britain, too, has gone back to the drawing board after Cumbria voted against storing the waste this year.

France, meanwhile, which derives 75 per cent of its electricity from nuclear energy, is seeking to store its waste underground near Bure, a remote area in the east of the country. Public debates have had to be postponed because of local opposition.

POLITICAL WRANGLING

For now, spent fuel from the UK’s reactors is transported to Sellafield in specifically designed flasks, removed and stored in big ponds to cool. It is dissolved in nitric acid and separated into uranium (96 per cent), plutonium (1 per cent) and waste products (3 per cent).

The high-level waste is fused into borosilicate glass. The resulting mixture is poured into stainless steel canisters and stored, pending availability of an underground repository. Intermediate waste is put into stainless steel drums that are then filled with cement before being stored at the sites where it is created.

Cleaning up the legacy of the past is a particular problem for Western nations such as the US and the UK and, to a lesser extent, France, whose involvement in the arms race has left them with military as well as civil waste.

In the US, the former plutonium production facility at Hanford in Washington is the subject of a big clean-up operation and political wrangling about rising costs and delays, as well as concerns about contamination of groundwater.

In Europe, the true scale of the challenge is laid bare at Sellafield, the continent’s most complex facility which employs about 10,000 people. Decades of mismanagement and a lack of urgency have dogged the site, which was passed from one government agency to another. During the miners’ strike of 1972, when the imperative was to keep the lights on, the site’s Magnox power reactors were run flat-out, resulting in a faster build-up of spent fuel than they could handle. Much was dumped in the silos and ponds.

“A lot of this legacy waste was created when no one gave much thought to the future. The issue was, it’s safe today,” says Mr John Clarke, Chief Executive of the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA), the government body set up in 2005 to oversee the job of managing the UK’s nuclear waste safely.

DECOMMISSIONING HEADACHE

Today, with the coalition government poised to agree on a deal for a new generation of reactors, the pressure on private companies working at the site and the NDA is immense. Sellafield swallows more than half of the NDA’s annual budget, receiving about £1.7 billion for this financial year. In February, the Public Accounts Committee estimated that it would cost £67.5 billion to decommission the site and made a stinging attack on the companies in charge.

Nuclear Management Partners (NMP), the US-led consortium that won the contract to clean up Sellafield in 2009 and which acts as the parent company of Sellafield Limited, the site licence holder, could lose the contract this year.

“We have an obligation to get it right ... We are like a shopfront for the nuclear industry,” admits Mr Tony Price, who was brought in recently by the NMP as Managing Director of Sellafield Limited.

It won’t be easy. Walking around the legacy buildings at Sellafield, you are confronted at almost every turn by pipework, some of which is red-brown from decades of corrosion, and cables wending their way round the outside of buildings. Some plants are joined, both in terms of what they do and by the infrastructure they rely on, making the task of cleaning up the site even more difficult.

The issue, says Professor Francis Livens at the Dalton Nuclear Institute, is that nobody knows what is in some of the ponds.

“At the moment, the industry is using very safe proven technologies, but they are often not very sophisticated,” he adds.

In the short term, the pressure is on NMP to deliver at Sellafield. Yet, the potential prize is much bigger than just cleaning up one of the world’s most polluted sites. There are potential export contracts for companies involved in the decommissioning work. Success at Sellafield would also mean success on a wider scale.

The Financial Times Limited

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Sylvia Pfeifer is Energy Editor for The Financial Times, covering corporate developments at multinational oil companies.

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