Nuclear Waste Disposal and Decommissioning Nuclear Plants

Radioactive waste is created at all points in the nuclear fuel cycle: from ura­nium mining, fuel enrichment and discharges from plants, to the highly radioactive waste resulting from reprocessing spent fuel and decommissioning contaminated sites.130 The disposal of radioactive waste is one of the most difficult problems currently facing the nuclear power industry. High level waste and spent fuel disposal pose particularly acute problems given that it is the most toxic, long-lived and life-endangering wastes known to human kind.131

Earlier global planners did not consider the problem of nuclear waste until decades after nuclear power plants began operating. Perhaps oddly, the Inter­national Atomic Energy Agency did not hold its first meeting on decom­missioning and permanent waste storage until 1973 — 20 years after the first reactor was built.132 The waste problem is so technically difficult to handle and socially intractable with the public that in the past some countries got around the issue by dumping nuclear waste into the sea. France, for example, from 1967 to 1969 dumped more than 12000 cubic meters of nuclear waste from the repro­cessing plant at Marcoule into the ocean.133 The ocean dumping of low level radioactive waste began in 1946 and took place in 50 different sites in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans,134 but did not gather a great deal of disquiet until the 1970s, and was not halted until 1982 as a result of an international agreement. xlviu

From the 1970s onward, attempts were made to find a suitable way of dealing with radioactive waste — a problem highlighted in the sixth report of the UK Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution (RCEP) in 1976. One of the key recommendations to emerge from the so-called ‘‘Flowers Report’’ as it became known (after the chairman, Sir Brian Flowers) was that the UK should not embark on a programme of new nuclear power plants unless the question of waste disposal had been resolved. Waste slowly emerged as nuclear power’s ‘‘Achilles’ Heel’’.136

xlvmThe LLW was usually packaged in metal drums lined with a concrete and bitumen matrix. As one reviewer observes, ‘‘So far, samples of sea water, sediments, and deep sea organisms collected on the various sites have not shown any excess in the levels of radionuclides above those due to nuclear weapons fallout, except on certain occasions where caesium and plutonium were detected at higher levels in samples taken close to packages at the dumping site’’.135

Across a number of countries the failed attempt to find a site for the geological storage of nuclear waste initiated a period of reflection on the part of the nuclear industry and its governmental backers. As a result, a newer, tentative and more open governance style was proposed whereby the formerly closed, secretive decision-making process was opened up. Previously excluded stakeholders were drawn into the process with mixed results. This required a culture change within organisations and a search for inclusive democratic processes that could enable debate to occur between previously antagonistic groups.137,138 It was clear that without a solution for the long-term disposal of high level legacy wastes no new nuclear stations could be contemplated, a position reflected in many countries policy statements on nuclear energy.

Taking the UK as an example, after the rejection of a proposal to build a rock laboratory at Sellafield in order to test whether a geological disposal site would be geologically appropriate, the nuclear industry and government undertook a period of reflection that produced the Managing Radioactive Waste Safely (MRWS) process launched in 2001, which recognised that the closed decision-making process in the past had failed and sought a new open way forward based on stakeholder dialogue and deliberation.

As part of this ‘‘new transparency”, a new committee, the Committee on Radioactive Waste Management CoRWM was ushered into existence in 2003 and was composed of people from scientific, technical and social scientific backgrounds. The committee was novel in its plural composition and its ambition to integrate scientific analysis with public and stakeholder engage­ment (PSE). CoRWM was to inspire public trust in decision making, which had suffered not only because of the failures in nuclear waste policy, but also due to previous incidents such as the BSE crisis.139,140 The committee operated for three years, in which time it undertook the most ambitious public and stakeholder engagement process ever seen in the UK to date. In its final report in July 2006, one of the recommendations was to move forward with deep geological disposal of nuclear waste, but simultaneously called for an accompanying robust programme of research on interim storage and further R & D on deep geological storage.141 These findings mirror those of compre­hensive analyses published elsewhere which suggest that the science under­pinning long-term geological isolation is sound and that the deep geological storage of high level waste is the most appropriate option.142 Cost estimates for such a facility vary widely with a median figure of £12 billion. Whilst the majority of stakeholders supported the recommendations, a number of sta­keholders (such as Greenpeace) and devolved administrations (Scotland) rejected them in favour of above ground interim storage. A recent report develops the criticisms of CoRWM recommendations.143

The CoRWM process illustrated what can be achieved when previously antagonistic stakeholders work collectively on a common problem, with suffi­cient time, resources and good will. xlix Whilst a move toward greater openness

xlix The experience of working on previous stakeholder dialogue projects which began during the mid-1990s in the nuclear arena has persuaded people within and outside of the nuclear industry of the possibility and potential of this form of collaborative working.

and engagement became evident in relation to finding a solution to long-term nuclear waste in a number of countries,144 the picture in relation to pressing forward with new nuclear build is less reassuring. Contemporary policy dis­course with its emphasis upon securitisation, in this case, energy security, reintroduced a policy making style redolent of early nuclear policy making. As Blowers observes, ‘‘the style of governance is less inclusive and participative’’, in many ways reverting back to some of the characteristics of what Dryzek describes as the ‘‘actively exclusive state’’ that had been prevalent in the UK until the early 1990s.145 Whilst the government consultation during 2007 on new nuclear stations emphasised public participation, it was beset by a host of problems that led to it being successfully challenged in the courts by Green­peace UK. The judge in a damming verdict stated that the consultation was ‘‘seriously flawed’’ and “manifestly inadequate and unfair’’ given that insuffi­cient and ‘‘misleading’’ information had been made available by the govern­ment for consultees to make an “intelligent response”.14б, l

Similarly in France, the ‘‘Bataille Law’’ of 1991 on radioactive waste man­agement marked a step towards a more democratic decision-making process, designed to put an end to the ‘‘cult of secrecy’’ that had hitherto prevailed in nuclear policy questions, but also to facilitate the exploration of different policy options.148 European legislation on transparency and citizen participation also pushed the French nuclear establishment towards more openness. Whilst this new processes of consultation and discussion was beset by a number of problems, researchers have analysed the new arenas where experts and the public come together as revealing the limits of traditional representative democracy, suggesting the need to press forward with this emerging form of ‘‘technical democracy’’149 which, its been suggested, can increase public confidence and trust in the technical and organizational effectiveness of waste management and disposal.150

Although the cost of finding a solution to nuclear waste is eye watering, this is dwarfed by the price tag attached to the decommissioning of nuclear plants. Unlike a coal-fired power station, for example, a nuclear power plant cannot just be dismantled and the site used for other purposes. A complex process is initiated where radioactive parts, buildings and, on occasion, contaminated land must be carefully dismantled, treated and stored as nuclear waste. None of which is cheap. It is estimated that the final bill for decommissioning the UK’s current fleet of nuclear plants will be in excess of £100 billion.151 Much of the cost is attributable to the clean up of the oldest civilian and military plants.152 Until recently, most cost estimates of nuclear plants excluded decommissioning costs, which can equal or exceed construction costs.153 As a result the UK government is suggesting a levy will be imposed on electricity produced from [The Blair administration began openly flagging new nuclear stations as a solution to climate change from 2006 onwards, despite CoRWM’s clear statement that its conclusions should not be taken as either green or red light to new build; the alleged ‘‘solution’’ to the waste issue provided by CoRWM was used by the government in its arguments in favour of new build. This suggests that government can selectively and strategically deploy more open and transparent forms of decision making.147 nuclear plants to cover decommissioning and other back end costs, although there are concerns that this levy will not be sufficient.

For years the nuclear industry deferred decommissioning until as far as possible into the future. Even an official report published as late as 1995 sug­gested operators of nuclear plants in the UK could defer decommissioning for 100 years.154 It was not until the decommissioning of the Berkeley Magnox reactors had to be planned after they stopped operating in 1988 and 1999 that the problem of how to pay for decommissioning came to light. l‘ In coming to power in 1997 the New Labour administration began the process of searching for cost effective solutions to the decommissioning challenge, drawing on the experience of the US decommissioning effort in particular, which was based on contracting out decommissioning to private sector consortia. Rather than sell nuclear liabilities the government has “contractorised” them. As a result of the involvement of the private sector in more accurately capturing the true cost of decommissioning, liabilities increased by 16% alone in 2007.156 The hope is that the skills and experience of the private sector will lead to the use of innovative solutions thereby driving down costs and reducing the final bill to the taxpayer. This has yet to be proven.

For most countries the preferred approach is to dispose of nuclear waste in facilities built in rock formations hundreds of meters below the earth. To date only Finland is in the process of building such an underground disposal facility, with Sweden only having recently come to an agreement with a local com­munity as to where the facility will be built. On the other hand the country with the most nuclear waste, the USA, has just rejected a disposal site after inves­tigating it for 20 years. For campaigners this seriously impacts upon the jus­tification to expand the new build programme. For scientific and political reasons the Yucca Mountain site in Nevada, part of the Nevada nuclear test site, was chosen to store the nation’s radioactive waste (a decision ratified by Congress) after a period of intensive research and debate in which $3 billion was spent. It was set to open in 2010 but opposition by environmental groups and Nevada politicians have kept things on hold. The Obama administration cancelled the plans after coming to power. The USA now has nowhere to place the 70 000 tonnes of waste currently being stored on-site at nuclear power plants and other facilities scattered throughout the country.157

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