UK’s aim to go nuclear lacks plan for radioactive waste

By Anna Daniel

Nuclear energy has made up part of the UK’s energy mix since the 1950s. At its peak, nuclear energy provided 26% of the power produced. Since then, nuclear plants have gradually been decommissioned as they reach the end of their lifespans with comparatively few nuclear power plants being built to replace them. This seems due to change in line with Boris Johnson’s new carbon-zero energy strategy which places nuclear energy at the forefront.

Proponents argue that nuclear energy is a green, affordable source of energy and an essential step to a carbon-zero, energy-independent future which is made more urgent by the recent enormous energy price increases, themselves further exacerbated by the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Experts point to an increasingly pertinent problem ­— what should we do with the waste?

Nuclear power plants typically work by bombarding uranium fuel with neutrons, sub-atomic particles with no charge. As the uranium atoms are hit by the neutrons, it breaks apart, releasing colossal amounts of heat which is used to create steam. This steam turns a turbine which, in turn, produces electricity. This process produces no carbon emissions and unlike other zero-carbon methods of electricity generation like solar and wind power, nuclear power plants can be run constantly.

Unlike solar and wind, however, it produces highly hazardous radioactive waste. Exposure to acute, high doses of radiation can lead to health issues like radiation sickness, burns, and cancer and has wide-ranging environmental effects. This waste must be handled with extreme care.

The Sellafield site is one of the most highly complex and hazardous in the world

Currently, the UK does not have adequate waste storage facilities. Radioactive waste from medicine, the military, research, and current and past nuclear power plants is stored at Sellafield, Cumbria. The Sellafield site is one of the most highly complex and hazardous in the world, and is home to one of the largest inventories of radioactive waste in the world.

The Committee on Radioactive Waste Disposal (CoRWM) recommends that the government build a new facility called a geological disposal facility (GDF). This involves burying radioactive waste 200 – 1,000 m underground. Radioactivity cannot be detected on the surface, and it is in theory one of the safest ways to permanently dispose of radioactive waste: it should remain safe for hundreds of thousands of years.

The building of a GDF has ran into some issues. The Government has said that it will only build the GDF with a community’s consent, but they are yet to find a community willing to house one. Another problem is capacity. Before having space for waste from new reactors, legacy waste needs to be disposed of.

According to the Nuclear Decommissioning Agency (NDA), this would only leave 10% of the GDF available for waste from new plants. In addition to this, the Nuclear Decommissioning Agency said that the spent fuel from new reactors will be so hot, that it will have to stay on-site for 140 years before it could be transported to a GDF.

Most countries with developed nuclear energy programs have adopted or are in the process of adopting GDFs

Johnson’s plan also includes £213 million of support for the development of a new generation of nuclear reactors called Advanced Modular Reactors (AMRs), the waste of which experts do not know how to deal with.

Finally, if a site for a GDF is approved, the GDF will only be open to receiving waste in the 2040s at the earliest. Given that a new nuclear reactor, Hinkley C, is being built as we speak and plans to have a new reactor approved every year until 2030, experts are questioning if expanding nuclear energy is premature.

Alternatives to a GDF exist. The CoRWM deliberated on 15 options ranging from GDF to disposal in space. Storage at sea, which has been used by the UK in the past, is now banned under international law. Disposal in space is too costly. Another option would be the export of radioactive waste, but who would accept it? Most countries with developed nuclear energy programs have adopted or are in the process of adopting GDFs. However, according to the CoRWM, exporting radioactive waste poses risks and challenges that are better avoided by simply building one at home.

The government is committed to nuclear. But are they committed to its consequences? Time will tell.

Illustration: Nicole Wu

One thought on “UK’s aim to go nuclear lacks plan for radioactive waste

  • This is another Boris I’ll thought out plan. It cannot happen in the timescale he opines. Don’t listen to this Fool. However waste disposal must be sorted out. Millions of pounds have been spent on moving the deck chairs about at Sellafield with no end in sight. First find the ultimate repository without which these plans don’t make sense. (no change there). Maybe rack up solar and wind in the meantime.

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