Categories: Energy issues / History of PR

26 April 2010

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Getting real about the world’s nuclear waste

Present energy technologies all pose long-term “problems”. These are called “inter-generational” risks. So let’s not kid ourselves: whether it’s climate change or radioactive waste, decisions we take now will effect our grandchildren, and their grandchildren.

Nuclear power has already created some waste “problems” – which we’ll be talking about here. They are not worse than the industrial dereliction caused by the coal industry. Who knows how they compare with whatever climate change has in store?

It would, by the way, be a bad mistake for pro-nuke enthusiasts to associate with some aspects of the global warming and climate change campaign. As people who have been on the receiving end of techno-phobic irrationality, the nuclear industry has much to fear from this growing sentiment.

Why rush?
The assertion that we cannot find a long-term solution for high-level, or even intermediate, radwaste (radioactive waste) is being used to block the building of new nuclear power stations.

But actually, we can find solutions – and people are using them now.

All but the “hottest” radioactive waste can be safely stored deep underground – and the hottest can be stored there when it cools sufficiently – which is a matter of decades, not centuries.

Given that interim underground storage, vitrification, cooling ponds, dry or wet storage all offer varying degrees of short- and medium-term solutions for tens of years, sometimes hundreds of years, or even permanently with incineration, there is no immediate worry about what to do with nuclear waste. Certainly, there is a plethora of options.

Why should we hold up the development of nuclear power stations whilst we wait for the politics of waste disposal to come right? The question I want to explore, however,  is how did this link ever arise in the first place, and how do we break it?

Anti-nuke prejudices and the industry
The post-war anti-nuclear movement hated this scary new technology whether it was used for war or peace. The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament attracted enormous support for its totemic issue. So the anti’s started worrying about The Bomb, and moved on to worry about “The China Syndrome” and Chernobyl. And now they concentrate on radioactive waste.

The nuclear industry in the West was whipped into semi-submission. Only in France – the most statist of Europe’s countries – and in one pragmatic Scandinavian country, Finland, did it thrive. It also long ago lost faith in the power of rational argument. The industry lobbies hard in private (and is wrongly seen as sinister for doing so), but is surprisingly quiescent in public.

Meanwhile, most of the founding fathers of the anti-nuke brigade are either dead, have changed their minds or are in their declining years.

But the Green Movement took up their cause in the 1970s and 1980s, and opposition to nuclear power is now in its DNA.

It still sees the unresolved waste issue as way of scuppering nuclear technology.

Nowadays, it has two main ploys. One is to argue that there is no safe disposal route for nuclear waste. The other is to argue that only very expensive disposal methods will be tolerably safe – a dig at the other perceived industry weakness of being uncompetitive.

In other words, if it can’t halt nuclear power dead in its tracks, it will make it too expensive to work.

Moving on from Cold War isolationism
Traditionally, countries worked alone on solving their waste problems. This was partly because of security considerations, and the link between domestic civil nuclear power programmes and the development of nuclear weapons. This self-sufficiency approach influenced the entire industry on all fronts. But it was not an ethically based policy: it was founded in Cold War nervousness.

The real tragedy is that this previously rational and pragmatic approach has become an unquestioned ethical principle. It is an article of faith when it comes to nuclear waste – a barrier to making real progress.

Such Cold War thinking has done most damage in the field of nuclear waste disposal, because it undermined the industry’s worldwide credibility and licence to operate.

The legacy of the Cold War needs to be overcome; otherwise the commercial potential of the nuclear industry will always be artificially constrained.

Openness – limits to corporate social responsibility
The industry is reluctant to be open and honest about the dilemma it faces. It fears to challenge what it considers public prejudice, and knows to be national legislation governing its activities, because that would, it thinks, be political suicide.

On the one hand, one would find it hard to blame the industry for this fiasco given that it is mostly owned by governments and has little operational freedom. On the other, an industry in this timid state can never be truly “transparent” or “open”. The more it says it is being so – and yet refuses to be bold or robust – the more likely it is to appear unconvincing.

Hence, the antis hold the moral high ground: influencing the legal framework governing the nuclear industry; holding power to stop or slow down the show. The industry hopes, meanwhile, that other arguments, such as global warming and energy insecurity, will deliver the “get out of jail card”.

So it is left to outsiders to fight the industry’s case properly – unrestrained.

Today, there is no economy of scale, productivity boost, or natural division of labour that can deliver international safety guarantees and regulatory certainty when it comes to the final disposal of nuclear waste. But surely this is what we all want?

Willing hosts at acceptable sites
The industry and governments hope that Finland and Sweden will be our model.[]There, “willing hosts” produced suitable sites. So far, Scandinavians are the exception rather than the rule: communities there compete to be the host of waste sites.

The chances that each of the thirty-odd countries operating reactors can find a suitable site within their borders is slight.

For instance, the Americans have been stalled over the use of the Yucca Mountain site for years, although they still seem determined to continue. The UK is even more stymied by the refusal of successive governments to choose between several viable sites (especially at Sellafield).  Japan has been unable even to establish an underground laboratory to investigate and research various final disposal options.

And then one must consider how other originators of nuclear waste deal with their back-end – in education, agriculture, scientific research, medicine and other industries: that’s most nations on the planet.

International effort – or national solutions?
It may be that nuclear waste is one case where only international effort can succeed where national programmes have failed.

Today, every country has its own regulatory body, its own waste plan and waste disposal operator; or more pertinently, its own nuclear waste material and no coherent or agreed disposal plan at all.

When giant companies, such as Areva and BNFL, do win overseas contracts they find themselves trapped by the limitations of state ownership, and too much interference from politics of all sorts.

Take the policy of every country taking responsibility for its own waste. It is almost the Holy Grail, beyond criticism, it would seem. But the UK highlights one reason why this principle should be abandoned,

“Waste substitution”: a substitute for real change
BNFL preaches the benefits of waste substitution. This convoluted formulation was a sleight of hand designed to get round the idea that it is inadequate to store waste originating from foreign shores in the UK. In response, quantities of high level, low and intermediate categories are juggled according to their quotient of radioactivity and their bulk.

In essence, waste substitution involves sending back to customers more high level radioactive waste than their spent fuel actually produces after BFNL has reprocessed it.  The small amounts of high-level waste are substituted for larger quantities of the less radioactive, but bulky, intermediate level waste, which end up staying in the UK. This practice reduces the cost of transporting waste products to their country of origination. It perhaps reduces the cost of final disposal in those countries too.

BNFL’s talk of radioactive equivalents is legal, little understood, and a clever solution designed to cope with an imperfect set of regulatory principles.

In essence, sending back small amounts of waste is cheaper than sending back larger amounts.

The question is, though, why do we have to play such games – why not just change the rules completely?

Debating disposal options
It makes sense that the global problem of handling radwaste should be open to global solutions: we should be open to the idea of countries taking in each others’ waste. That would involve international regulations, standards, policing and a very public debate.

We would all benefit from more pragmatic co-ordination between countries willing to explore new ways of doing things; that surely will be easier to achieve than trying to write comprehensive global guidelines by consensus.

There are many options to discuss. Some sites have near-perfect geology – for deep disposal. Others have the “fence” in place: they have a secure zone (and often well-trained people).

Two obvious candidates as regional and perhaps international sites would be Switzerland’s granite Alps and Chernobyl’s already contaminated inner exclusion zone – a place in which the leading cadre of the nuclear industry’s back-end is already hard at work.

Deep-sea disposal option, for instance, has been eliminated because of the Greenpeace factor, now relabelled by the codeword ethical issues; despite its attraction in terms of cost, ease of use, and possible safety advantages.

Miles down in deep ocean trenches, a few bus load equivalents of highly radioactive waste in specially designed containers would be no more than a blip in a world two thirds covered by water. Certainly no more dangerous than what spews into the ocean depths every day through numerous deep-sea vents with no apparent adverse side affects (except perhaps positive ones) over millions of years.

Surely, deep-sea disposal should be discussed openly once more; even if, perhaps precisely because, there are counter arguments to the ones given here?

Proliferation and safety
While we cannot realistically stop countries building nuclear power stations; we can see it is done without threatening us. Perhaps Russia’s current proposal to produce highly enriched uranium on behalf of Iran is the way forward in other aspects of the nuclear fuel cycle?

Paradoxically, a more international approach could lessen the dangers of terrorist or other misuse of waste. At present, with so many different solutions and sites located round the world, there are multiple targets for terrorists, many of them soft.  A few well-protected and managed sites would be safer.

Of course, transport of nuclear material to a site raises safety concerns and worries about terrorism. However, the great news is that the transport of nuclear material over a period of almost sixty years has been an exceptional success – without serious incident by land, air and sea. We can be fairly confident, without being complacent, that we can move nuclear material safely.

It’s prejudice and politics – not technology
We all have to understand, even the industry’s opponents, that existing waste from the nuclear industry has to be managed and disposed of.  It does not take big leap of imagination to grasp that if we can handle what already exists, as we must, we can handle the additional waste that will result from building more nuclear power stations.

There are no quick or easy solutions to the waste problem – there is no rush either. There is a great urgency, however, to question the status quo that lost its reason for existence in the early 1990s. Until that discussion begins, all talk of openness and transparency really is a diversion, a smokescreen – put up by all sides.

Ends (dated 2006).

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