Why worry about nuclear waste? What has the future ever done for us?

'Some day, son, all this (nuclear waste) will be yours!' Cartoon: Katauskes via Greens MPs on Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND).
'Some day, son, all this (nuclear waste) will be yours!' Cartoon: Katauskes via Greens MPs on Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND).
The long term problems of what to do with nuclear waste remain entirely unsolved, writes Andrew Blowers. Yet governments and the nuclear industry continue to peddle their untenable 'bury and forget' policy of deep geological disposal, which only unloads the toxic legacy of modern day nuclear power and weapons onto uncountable future generations.
Nowhere yet is there a repository receiving the most dangerous and long-lived high-level nuclear wastes. Far from making progress, disposal programmes have proved to be slow, tedious and unsuccessful.

In all the recent debate about the future of nuclear energy, one issue, perhaps the most important of all, has been largely ignored.

Yet the problem of dealing with waste and contamination that follows nuclear activity as night follows day afflicts not only those generations that get the dubious benefit of nuclear electricity, but also imposes burdens of effort, risk and cost on generations into the far and unforeseeable future.

That burden will be disproportionately borne by those communities already hosting nuclear facilities as they will be the most likely recipients of any new nuclear development.

There are two primary reasons for neglect of this issue. One is that, in today's world, there is an emphasis on the short run, on security and jobs and investment for the present and foreseeable future of our children and grandchildren.

Beyond that the future, both environmentally and socially, becomes unimaginable and so a perverse and cavalier disregard of the interests of those bearing the nuclear legacy becomes permissable, even normal.

At worst the needs of the future are subordinated to those of the present ('what has the future ever done for us?') while, at best, there is implicitly an assumption that the future will take care of itself, with perhaps a little help.

That is not to say that the need to care for the future is entirely neglected. Indeed, in the case of the nuclear industry the rhetoric of sustainable development is routinely expressed. For instance, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) puts it succinctly: "Radioactive waste shall be managed in such a way that will not impose undue burdens on future generations." (IAEA, 1995, Pinciple 5).

Thus, geological disposal has become axiomatic, a scientific solution that will "isolate the waste deep inside a suitable rock formation to ensure that no significant quantity of radioactivity ever reaches the surface environment." (Defra, 2007), p.15).

All will be well in the best of all possible worlds

This idea that all will be well if only we can bury and forget is the second reason for neglecting the issue of waste in the debate over new build.

The UK Government glibly dismisses the problem of long term management with the casuist assertion that "effective arrangements will exist to manage and dispose of the waste that will be produced from new nuclear power stations." (DECC, 2011, p.15).

This statement is preposterous, for there is neither a scientific safety case nor yet a suitable and acceptable site in England, Wales or Northern Ireland (Scotland is outwith the policy) to support the claim. The selection of West Cumbria (which includes the Sellafield complex) as a possible site for an underground laboratory was repulsed in 1997 and a generation later a voluntary process there flourished then faltered, leading government to review and regroup.

It may be argued that progress towards a permanent solution is being made elsewhere. In Finland and Sweden a disposal concept has been agreed and suitable and acceptable sites have been found and construction is imminent. But the volumes of wastes are small, the inventory straightforward, the political conditions favourable and the Baltic geology reasonably homogeneous.

Nowhere yet is there a repository receiving the most dangerous and long-lived high-level nuclear wastes. Far from making progress, disposal programmes have proved to be slow, tedious and unsuccessful.

Elsewhere, in France, the Bure site in the east of the country is the focus of an underground laboratory which may eventually become the national repository. And, in the USA, the WIPP facility at Carlsbad, New Mexico opened for disposal of transuranic wastes from the military sector in 1999. But problems of seepage in the salt formation have resulted in its suspension since 2014.

In the USA successive attempts over many decades to land the Yucca Mountain site have failed. Again, in Germany, resistance to the Gorleben site has been implacable and successive site selection processes have not yielded an alternative.

This pattern is replicated elsewhere with many countries involved, enthusiastically or reluctantly, seeking solutions but scientific uncertainty, societal reluctance and political procrastination are formidable barriers to moving forward. After all, what is the hurry when the uncertainties are unresolved and the favoured solution transcends conventional political time scales and can be perpetually deferred?

Displacement therapy?

Nowhere yet is there a repository receiving the most dangerous and long-lived high-level wastes and spent fuel. Far from making progress, disposal programmes have invariably proved to be slow, tedious and unsuccessful.

Moreover environmental, social and economic conditions in the far future are simply indeterminable. Certainly, the present state of knowledge is no basis for creating more waste in addition to the legacy that will exist from past and present nuclear activity.

The contemporary emphasis on geological disposal as the long-term, final solution to the problem is a form of displacement therapy, diverting attention from the real solution for the foreseeable (next two generations) future. The problem and the priority is the safe and secure management of the existing nuclear legacy here and now. This legacy exists and continues to grow.

It is, of course a physical and environmental issue consisting of buildings, ponds, storage areas, contaminated land and water, discharges and emissions. But it is a social issue too, since the legacy exists in the communities that live adjacent to some of the most contaminated and dangerous areas in the world.

Four of the most important of these nuclear communities are explored in my latest book, The Legacy of Nuclear Power (Blowers, 2017).

Places on the periphery

Hanford, USA. Located in America's North West, Hanford was the chosen location for the manufacture of the plutonium for the 'Fat Man' nuclear weapon that devastated Nagasaki on 9 August, 1945.

In the subsequent Cold War, Hanford's nuclear activities expanded with nuclear reactors on the banks of the Columbia river, reprocessing 'canyons' in the middle of this vast site and a variety of production and experimental facilities scattered around its fringes.

Production at Hanford has ceased but a vast nuclear legacy remains: in the tank farms containing high-level liquid waste and sludge, some leaking towards the Columbia; in the abandoned reactors and decommissioned reprocessing works; and in waste management facilities and clean-up projects scattered around the site.

Cleaning up this legacy is a long-term, costly ($2bn. federal funding a year), intractable and complex task but it is an inescapable one.

Sellafield, UK. Like Hanford, Sellafield's nuclear legacy stretches back to the beginning of the UK's military nuclear programme.

On to its compact site is crammed around two-thirds of all the radioactivity from the UK's nuclear legacy, all the country's high-level wastes, most of the spent fuel, a stockpile of around 140 tonnes of plutonium and other complex streams of wastes.

These include often unrecorded mixtures of fuel, skips and other highly radioactive debris tipped into the notorious ponds and silos which, in the words of Margaret Hodge, a former Chair of the Public Accounts Committee pose "intolerable risks" to the public and the environment.

Cleaning up this legacy is a task that stretches decades ahead absorbing around £1.7 bn. from the government a year.

La Hague and Bure, France. In France, where three quarters of the country's electricity is nuclear, much of the legacy is focused around the reprocessing facilities at La Hague at the tip of the Cotentin peninsula in Normandy.

At this remote location spent fuel is reprocessed for recycling in the form of mixed oxide fuel (MOX) or it is vitrified and stored pending disposal.

After several unsuccessful attempts to find a suitable and acceptable site for deep disposal, an underground laboratory at Bure, a nuclear no-man's land in eastern France, is being stealthily and steadily developed as an underground laboratory though a fully-fledged disposal facility is still a long way off.

Gorleben, Germany. By contrast, there are other places, Gorleben in Germany being one, where resolute and continuing resistance on the part of local communities has prevailed to prevent, or at least restrain, the imposition of the nuclear industry and its unwanted and dangerous legacy.

But Gorleben's legendary defence of its identity expresses just how difficult it will be for the nuclear industry to extend its reach and colonise greenfield sites.

Elsewhere there are sites such as the Mayak plutonium facilities at Ozersk in Russia, for long a closed city, scene of a major accident in 1957 (Medvedev,1979) and left with a legacy of high levels of environmental pollution in rivers and lakes from its military reprocessing and waste facilities (Brown, 2013).

And there are many other sites, across the world, where the nuclear legacy imposes risk, blight and environmental degradation on local communities.

Don't just do something - stand there

The nuclear legacy exists and will persist in places that may be described as 'peripheral' (Blowers and Leroy, 1994), places where hazardous activities are located and which are, as it were, physically and socially set apart from the mainstream.

They tend to be by definition places of environmental risk but also geographically remote. To a greater or lesser extent they are economically marginal, monocultural and dependent and, consequently politically powerless. And many of these communities, notably the major nuclear complexes, exhibit distinctive social characteristics of resignation combined with realism and resilience.

Recognition that the basic challenge is simply to maintain and improve the long-term management of the legacy in its existing locations would shift the policy emphasis in five important ways:

  1. It would emphasise that legacy management is a long-term, inter-generational process.

  2. This, in turn, would recognise storage, for what in reality it is: a long-term, not an interim solution.

  3. It would give greater encouragement to exploring alternative long-term solutions, shifting the emphasis from the current obsession with deep geological disposal.

  4. It would give practical purpose to the idea of the 'continuing present' as the context for decision making passing down the generations.

  5. It would focus attention on the longer term and the implications of climate and societal change and their implications and potential impacts on communities.

Given the time-scales for long-term management there is no need to hurry towards a disposal solution. Deep disposal, of course, remains an option but not necessarily the only one. Proving a concept and finding a site takes time and should not be hurried.

Above all, deep disposal should not be upheld as the solution that legitimates new build. The existing nuclear legacy is already proving difficult to manage; the uncertainties of time-scale and inventory that new build would introduce would make the legacy unmanageable.

Society can, and should, take its time in dealing with its nuclear legacy. For whatever the future fortunes of the nuclear industry, its legacy and the communities that manage it, will be with us for thousands of generations to come.



Andrew Blowers is Professor Emeritus in Social Sciences at the Open University.

The book: 'The Legacy of Nuclear Power' is by Andrew Blowers and published by Routledge. 20% Discount Available with discount code FLR40.


Blowers, A. (2017) The Legacy of Nuclear Power, London, Earthscan Routledge

Brown, K. (2013) Plutopia: Nuclear Families, Atomic Cities, and the Great Soviet and American Nuclear Disasters, Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC)(2011) National Policy statement for Nuclear Power Generation (EN-6), Vol.II - Annexes, June.

Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and devolved administrations (2007) Managing Radioactive Waste safely, A Framework for Implementing Geological Disposal, public consultation, 25 June.

International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)(1995) The Principles of Radioactive Waste Management, Safety Series No. 111-F, IAEA, Vienna.

Medvedev, Z. (1979) Nuclear Disaster in the Urals, Angus and Robertson, London.

Table 1

Progress with long term management of spent fuel and high level wastes in selected countries









Spent fuel direct disposal

Repository development at Olkiluoto


Spent fuel direct disposal

Repository site selected at Osthammer


Reprocessing/ Storage/disposal

Cigéo underground disposal project at Bure

United Kingdom

Reprocessing/storage/direct disposal

Site selection process reviewed after lack of progress in West Cumbria


Spent fuel/reprocessing overseas waste returns/ storage/direct disposal

Site selection process under consideration


Spent fuel storage

Central store site selected (Cuenca)/research on disposal


Reprocessing (ceased)/spent fuel/storage/disposal

Research into clay formations for disposal


Long term storage

Central store


Spent fuel storage/disposal

Central store/ underground rock laboratories/research into clay formations for disposal

Czech Republic

Spent fuel/storage/disposal

Geological investigation at candidate sites


Stored on site

Site selection process


Stored on site

Research on disposal


Stored at site/sent to Russia

Preliminary consideration of repository


Stored on site

Preliminary investigations for repository


Reprocessing/waste returns from overseas/storage

Reprocessing (Ozersk)/central storage (Krasnoyarsk and reactor sites)/underground research laboratory


Storage at sites/sent to Russia

Preliminary investigations for repository



Storage at sites/reprocessing (delayed)

Reprocessing at Rokkasho (delayed)/site selection process for repository

South Korea

Storage at sites/central store

Site selection process under consideration


Storage at reactor sites/central store/proposed reprocessing

Central store and repository development (Gansu province)


Storage at sites/reprocessing

Research on disposal


Storage at sites

Disposal under consideration

North America



Stored at site/direct disposal

Repository siting process in progress

United States

Spent fuel storage at sites/clean up at defence sites/disposal

Site selection process following failure to proceed at Yucca Mountain/defence wastes disposed of at WIPP (Carlsbad)

Notes on Table 1

  1. Table indicates basic policy for management of spent fuel and high level wastes (HLW) from reprocessing in 23 countries in 2016.

  2. Most nuclear countries have opted for deep geological disposal as the long-term method but progress varies.

  3. Disposal facilities for lower level wastes are in operation or planned in all countries.