The government isn’t telling us the true cost of nuclear waste disposal

| 13th December 2010
Greenpeace say nuclear is a distraction to the the real solutions
Greenpeace say nuclear is a distraction to the the real solutions

The new generation of nuclear power stations will produce waste that is five times more radioactive than previously

UK plans for ten new nuclear power plants will create £80 billion worth of radioactive waste that we still have no secure way of disposing

The Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) and the nuclear industry have a plan for 10 new ‘Generation 3’ reactors, each one containing 2.5 times the radiological inventory of the UK’s biggest AGR reactor at Sizewell B. In a recent Ministerial statement, Chris Huhne, the Secretary of State for DECC made it clear that the Coalition is not ruling out taking on unspecified nuclear ‘financial risks or liabilities’ to make this happen. Given the sheer weight of our current nuclear legacy, its' clear that this will also involve nuclear waste ‘financial risks or liabilities’.

The most recent estimates are that, once ‘packaged’, the UK already has around 1,420 cubic metres of hot high-level radioactive waste, 364,000 cubic metres of long lived intermediate-level radioactive waste, and 3,470,000 cubic metres of toxic low-level radioactive waste. The Government proposes to house the high and intermediate part of this vast inventory in a deep hole five times the size of the Albert Hall over millennia. Government officials estimate that the cost of managing this waste and decommissioning will be around £80 billion and rising – five years ago it was around £50 billion. There are no secure estimates for costing a deep disposal repository.

will be five times more radioactive

And this is just what we have at the moment. Although the nuclear industry estimate that any new build radioactive waste would increase the problem by only 10 per cent in volume - they fail to mention that the Committee on Radioactive Waste Management has worked out that the radioactivity would increase by five times, which means that we would need 15 Albert Halls to house the waste.
Steve Thomas, Professor of Energy Policy at the University of Greenwich Business School, suggests that the liberalisation of the energy market in Europe has pressured the nuclear industry to become more competitive. The industry realised that a decrease in cost could be achieved if the reactor’s power could be increased, and this could happen by using more enriched uranium as reactor fuel. The logic is that this ‘super-charged’ fuel will be left in the reactor for longer in order to provide, as Jeremy Clarkson might say, ‘more power’.

Unfortunately, the Law of Unintended Consequences also means that this ‘high burn-up’ spent fuel is twice as radioactive than conventional spent fuel, and the reactor operations will have a much tighter safety margin. This is because high burn-up fuel is much hotter, much more radioactive, and performs very poorly when subject to ‘abnormal conditions’. John Large, an international consulting nuclear engineer, notes that ‘These risks persist through the nuclear cycle, as high burn-up fuel is liable to release a much higher content of its fission product inventory, known as the ‘immediate release fraction’, than fuel used in current reactors. And the situation isn’t being helped by the nuclear industries heroic safety claims: AREVA EdF’s ‘worst case’ estimate - including terrorist attack – insist that no more than 0.2 per cent of the reactor core content would be released during ‘open containment’ in ‘abnormal conditions’.

But surely things are better elsewhere? Well, not really. Although the deep geological concept is in the very early stage of testing in Finland and Sweden - in the US, Obama has withdrawn funding from the Yucca Mountain geological radioactive waste dump, saying that ‘After spending billions of dollars on the Yucca Mountain Project, there are still significant questions about whether nuclear waste can be safely stored there’. In Japan and Germany, proposals for deep disposal facilities have encountered strong opposition, and in France, 15 years of research on deep underground burial has proved ‘inconclusive’.

So lets be clear about this, according to Prof Andrew Blowers, a member of the first Government Committee on Radioactive Waste Management, ‘There is, as yet, no proven technical solution for the long-term management of radioactive wastes, and in the meantime we are storing up large quantities of high level spent fuel and intermediate-level radioactive waste in interim stores at each reactor site’. Never the less, a new planning system has now been adopted to facilitate the construction of new nuclear reactors and the associated nuclear waste stores - and ‘volunteer communities’ are being sought for a repository, to receive high-level as well as intermediate-level wastes from past and current reprocessing, plus spent nuclear fuel from new nuclear reactors.

If things go wrong, who pays?

However, when British Energy went bankrupt, and had to be ‘rescued’ by New Labour in 2002, we learned that taxpayers are always the last recourse if things go wrong. Although electricity consumers contributed for 25 years for BE decommissioning and waste costs, the auditors found no money in the till. So at a stroke of a pen, a £10 billion nuclear industry waste liability became a UK taxpayer liability. And this comedy of errors is now about to be reprised by the Coalition through what is known as a ‘fixed unit price’ for nuclear waste - which basically involves locking in the UK taxpayer to the financial risk that right now we can fix and predict nuclear waste costs over decades. This represents an effective cap on nuclear industry liabilities, leaving the taxpayer open to any further financial liabilities if today’s nuclear waste economists have got their sums wrong.

One way around this would be to require nuclear operators to ‘upfront’ enough money to deal with the radioactive wastes and spent fuel as and when they are created, and put waste funding before paying out dividends to investors. In this way, rather than ‘discounting’ costs, the nuclear industry would remain financially and legally liable for their waste and spent fuel. But unfortunately, a realistic costing of the nuclear fuel-cycle – including ‘accidents and incidents’ - would make the proposed ‘nuclear Renaissance’ uneconomic in comparison to true renewable technologies, and this is perhaps the core point. 
Whilst not ideologically opposed to nuclear, it seems that the planned scale of investment in more nuclear technology will impact on how we face up to the challenge of achieving transition to a sustainable energy future. If something goes wrong with nuclear - as it tends to - Chris Huhne has no plan B other than throwing up gas plants in a hurry. Yet energy policy evidence tells us that, right now, there does exist real choice through a range of technically and economically viable alternatives. As Professor Andy Stirling, from the Science Policy Research Unit, concludes: ‘Offshore wind, waves, tides, biomass and photovoltaics collectively offer the potential to harness enormous energy resources. These may equally be adopted in remote centralised infrastructures or by radical shifts towards distributed networks of energy supply and demand reduction technologies. Electricity, hydrogen or fluid biofuels all offer quite radically different secondary energy carriers for mobility, heat or mechanical power’.

Government figures state that re-building nuclear generation in England and Wales will supply only 4 per cent of our total energy, and so deal with only 4 per cent of our CO2 emissions - remember, electricity is only 20 per cent of total UK energy, and nuclear at its height produced only 20 per cent of total electricity. With such a diverse range of feasible renewable energy futures on hand, it seems deeply short-sighted and foolhardy to risk yet another lock-in to yet another uneconomic round of nuclear new-build. 

Dr Paul Dorfman is a nuclear consultant at the University of Warwick

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