The case against nuclear power is weakened by simplistic arguments that don’t stand up to scrutiny, argues Professor Francis Livens.
I was recently involved in a public debate on nuclear energy. One of my opponent’s arguments against nuclear power was that the UK has no way of dealing with its huge quantities of radioactive waste. I thought I would dig up some of the evidence to see whether the opponents’ case stood up.
The UK’s historic management of the radioactive wastes it accumulated over 70 years is a national embarrassment. But, to be fair to recent governments of all political complexions, this was recognised in 2002 and there has been a sustained effort – through two changes of government and a major financial crisis – to deal with the ‘nuclear legacy’. You might disagree with how it’s been done, and wonder why it seems so slow and so expensive, but at least it is being done, and for that governments should get considerable credit.
The UK nuclear legacy wasn’t created for fun, and many of its worst elements reflect the politics of the time. Through the 1950s and into the 60s, Britain had to have the bomb. The pursuit of this at almost any cost created much of our early legacy of nuclear waste.
In the 1970s, our catastrophic industrial relations meant that we couldn’t manage the used fuel from our reactors properly. Then, in the early 1980s, we ran the reactors flat out to break the power of the coal miners. But whatever the rights and wrongs, the UK nuclear programme did also provide us with about 20% of our electricity for many decades.
The UK’s radioactive waste legacy reflects our diverse and, at times in the past, very large, nuclear programmes. It consists of some things that are essentially non-hazardous and others which are extremely nasty. The nastier components are classified as ‘Higher Activity Waste’ and, internationally, it is accepted that the best thing to do with this is to seal it up in an engineered repository deep underground, so that radioactive decay can reduce its toxicity over long periods of time. In the UK, the proposed ‘Geological Disposal Facility’ (GDF) will lie at between 200 and 1000 metres depth.
How big is the waste legacy? There seems to be a fondness for the ‘Albert Hall’ as a unit of volume, and the whole UK nuclear legacy represents something like five Albert Halls (a large coal fired power station creates about one Albert Hall of ash each year). That’s not the whole story, especially for heat generating wastes, because you have to space them out. So, although the volume of such waste for disposal is pretty small (0.1 Albert Halls), the ‘footprint’ of a geological disposal facility for such waste will be several square kilometres. Most of your GDF is just empty space with wastes dotted about.
Alternatively, you can express the legacy in terms of its radioactivity. If you add it all together, it’s a huge number of Becquerels (the unit of radioactivity; 82,000,000,000,000,000,000 if you want to know), but that’s not the whole story. First of all the Becquerel (sometimes known in the trade as the ‘Bugger All’) is a very small quantity – it’s like measuring astronomical distances in millimetres, so you quickly get to a big looking number.
Each person has about 5,000 Becquerels of naturally occurring, radioactive potassium-40 in their body, but I don’t think we view ourselves as particularly radioactive. Second, much of the waste inventory has a fairly short half-life and the total radioactivity of today’s waste will have decayed by over 50% by 2050, and by almost 90% by 2100. The relatively small fraction that persists contains some long-lived and hazardous materials, so neither radioactivity nor ‘Albert Halls’ tells the whole story.
To sum up, the volume of waste is small by industrial waste standards, and most of the radioactivity goes away pretty quickly. This leaves a fairly small but problematic amount. This is a technical challenge, but certainly not an insuperable problem.
International experience from places like Canada and Sweden suggests that without support from the local community, you will not succeed with waste disposal. There was some interest, mainly in west Cumbria, in an attempt to start a GDF programme a few years ago, but that lost its way in a debate about the suitability or otherwise of Cumbrian geology. It is technically possible to package the waste in a safe form, store it, and dispose of it safely in any of a range of geological settings. It would certainly be possible to package waste more quickly and cheaply, and make the GDF smaller, but to say we cannot manage the waste safely is untrue.
We actually don’t know very much about UK geology at GDF depths. From what we do know, there are plenty of candidate settings for the facility. Any particular site’s suitability will only become clearer as any programme develops and it is investigated in detail. The hurdles are thus far less in the science and technology of disposal, and far more in the social, political and economic aspects. Techies like me believe they can do it – the challenge is for us to gain trust in the wider community.
It’s worth mentioning waste from new reactors, too. This is different from the legacy, because we have a choice over whether to create this waste or not. This puts a very different complexion on the debate. The much more limited new nuclear build programme would produce smaller volumes of waste, maybe only 10% of the legacy volume, including significant quantities of heat generating spent fuel. But it is waste we could choose not to create at all.
My analysis of nuclear power opponents’ other arguments follow in part two of this blog.