Been very busy at work the last few weeks, preventing me from updating this blog.
One of the big energy related stories of the last few weeks was the collapse of the Government’s planned UK nuclear waste repository in Cumbria (or as they prefer to call it the Geological Disposal Facility). A few weeks back Cumbria County Council effectively vetoed the plan. They were worried that had the proposal gone any further they would become subject to “lock in” whereby it would be difficult for them to pull out or object to it.This decision, which was appealed, has since been upheld, although there are a number of ways the government could force the issue. In short they could opt to essentially riding ruckshot over local politics and imposing the facility on the region. Though the experience in the US, when the Bush Adm tried that tactic with the Yucca Mountain repository, suggests it mightn’t be a good idea. This decision by CCC throws into disarray the UK government’s plans, both for more nuclear reactors and also for the disposal of the Countries existing inventory of 631,000 cubic metres of nuclear waste, which includes 21,000 m3 of HLW, spent fuel & plutonium. A historical Decision
Ultimately we can trace the UK nuclear industries problems all the way back to a faithful decision taken in the 1940’s as regards the future of the then fledgling UK nuclear industry. I have book on my shelf called “into the atomic age” by H. C. Pincher published in 1947, where he mentions the decision to build (what would become) the UK’s main nuclear energy facility in Cumbria.The decision to build in Cumbria boiled down to the fact that the UK government was so “confident” as to the safety of nuclear energy, that they decided to push it as far away from any major metropolitan area in the UK (in particular London) as they could. This boiled down to a decision between the Scottish highlands or the wilds of Cumbria. Strategic (Scottish sites would be vulnerable to surprise attack by enemy bombers), Political (even then there was talk of Scottish independence) and practical considerations (Cumbria was well located near existing MOD facilities in Barrow & Springfield’s and was directly between Durham, Liverpool, Manchester & Glasgow uni’s as well not far from the UK Atomic Engineering’s HQ at Risley) all pointed to Cumbria as the obvious choice.
There also was a desire back then to separate out the UK’s civilian nuclear establishment (at Harwell) from the bomb project, although the lines between the two would eventually becoming increasingly blurred, as detailed in W. C. Petterson’s history of the UK nuclear industry “Going Critical”.
Dead Nuke Storage
Unfortunately, this decision came with one rather big fatal flaw, Selafield’s in the wrong place! For of course, as far as the rest of the country is concerned Cumbria is better known as “the Lake District”. Britain’s favourite and most popular national park (been there twice in the last year myself, likely be going there again at sometime!). Obviously trying to put the countries nuclear waste bin underneath here was never going to be popular. I mean, if I went and proposed a wind farm across Helvellyn I think you can guess the response!While certainly a good number of people living in the West of Cumbria are dependent on activities in Selafield for their livelihoods, in the rest of the Lake district the main industry is tourism. So inevitably there was always going to be this clash of vested interests, nevermind the opinions of those from further afield. Inevitably those many tourists who flock to the lakes each year would oppose this sort of plan.
Then there’s also the opinion of the Irish government to consider. They’ve never been happy with Selafield being right oppose them across the Irish Sea. To the Irish it looks like the English took their nuclear waste dump and pushed it as far away from London as possible (which as I’ve shown is partially true!), but where its just 80 miles from the West coast of Ireland, home to a large chunk of the population both north and south of the border.
In short what Cumbian County Council seemed to be saying is that the sign on the road into Cumbria say’s “National Park” and not “Dead Nuke Storage”. Entertaining hikers and sightseers is their business, not storing nuclear waste.
Of course supporters of the GDF have been quick to point out that they only want to build it in Cumbria, not necessarily under the National Park. My response to that is to note that they are effectively splitting hairs. Whether it is in the National Park or just on the border of it scarcely matters, it’s going to be too close for comfort.Further, I once sat down with a geologist and geological map of the UK and we went over the possibilities for locating a geological storage facility in the UK. He was very clear that in his opinion the only locations in Cumbria with the correct rock types, were under the national park. He noted also that Cumbria was far from the best location for a repository. Instead he pointed to the Dumfries and Galloway hills as his preferred location (for reasons of both geology but also because they are relatively lightly populated!). Alternatively he pointed to either the Midlands of the UK or salt formations off the South East coast. Indeed a study by the British Geological Survey and Nirex from the 1980’s seems to point to a strata of rock between Norwich and Cambridge as the best choice of location for Britain’s nuclear waste…..of course they are talking from a purely geological point of view! I suspect from a political point of view this is a non-starter from day one as you’ll have every NIMBY from Norwich to London coming out of the woodwork to oppose it!
Too Early to Cheer
Of course the environmentalists were soon cheering the decision by Cumbria County Council to can the GDF. However, before they start kicking back and smoking their victory spliffs, consider that the UK still has a sizable inventory of nuclear waste. Even if we stop using nuclear power tomorrow it will still exist. This existing stockpile needs to be disposed of somehow.
The Harvard study concludes that reprocessing would be much more expensive than geological storage (even in the best case scenario). While the MIT report also points to the idea that deep geological storage represents the best choice from a point of view of safety (tinkering with the waste risks creating an even bigger mess), costs and long term durability (i.e. the longer we have the waste piled up in interim storage, the greater the chances of an accidental release). Even groups like Greenpeace and FoE seem to agree with this.
Also there is a fallacy in the environmentalists agenda in opposing the GDF. That without the means to dispose of the nuclear waste that the UK’s new nuclear plants will generate, that the powers that be will cancel such plans. That assumes that the UK nuclear industry would do what it has consistently failed to do for the last 60 years – take responsibility! And I don’t see that happening.
Indeed I would point again to the experience in the US. When the Yucca Mountain project was cancelled, not only did the Obama administration indicate they were carrying on regardless, but the otherwise sensible Steven Chu (US energy secretary at the time) came out with a lot of wishful thinking about Fast Neutron reactors and Fusion power plants (and one assumes photon torpedoes!) being used to “dispose” of waste in the future.
My fear is, the same thing will happen in the UK. The NDA will simply kick the can a little further down the road, make various unrealistic future promises, then they’ll try to build new reactors anyway. It will only be if and when inevitably there’s an accident at Selafield a few decades from now (and a major release of radiation), that the entire nuclear supply chain in the UK will be brought to halt. Leaving the UK, like Japan, with a load of nuclear white elephants it no longer has any use for.
More Nuclear Kool aid please
And of course it wasn’t just the anti-nuclear crowd who were doing cartwheels over this decision. This decision was much to the liking of the true head cases within the UK nuclear lobby, the Fast Reactor cheerleaders. They don’t want the UK’s nuclear waste buried, as its central to their too plans for a too-cheap-meter-thousand-year-nuclear-reich.
Unfortunately, their proposal falls flat for the rather obvious reasons (see my previous article, recently updated “the fast reactor delusion”):
B) Are an order of magnitude more expensive than conventional nuclear reactors (considerably more expensive than even the worst case scenario’s figures for renewables).
Fast Reactors also have capacity factors that make an indoor wind farm look good! (there’s some debate in Japan as to whether Monju, the world most modern Fast Reactor, has actually had overall negative capacity factor, given that’s its only ever generated an hour’s worth of electricity in 25 years).
Again, both the MIT and Harvard reports mentioned above consider Fast reactors. And both conclude that they would increase the costs (and risks!) yet further and would only be justified if the price of Uranium would have to get extremely high (many times its current market price) to justify such expenditure (assuming we can resolve point A that is!). Indeed the MIT report’s conclusions have been criticised in this regard for if anything, pulling its punches.
Also in order to operate effectively Fast Reactors require reprocessing of spent fuel (as it takes multiple passes through the fast reactor). A good deal of the current mess that the UK nuclear industry is stuck in, notably as regards Selafield, can be traced back to this decision to reprocess commercial reactor fuel. This again, is dealt with in W. C. Petterson’s book “Going Critical”.
The Union of Concerned Scientists has pointed out that Fast reactors, and the reprocessing needed for them to function effectively, could actually increase the inventory of nuclear waste rather than reduce it, as you’re basically trading a modest reduction in HLW for a massive increase in LLW and ILW.Also the Plutonium wastes will need to be converted from an oxide from to metallic form. Leaked e-mails from within the NDA reveal that this will open up all sorts of safety and proliferation related loopholes.
There are proposals for a new type of Gas Cooled Fast Reactor, which might work a little more reliably than fast reactors in the past. However, as I mention in regards to GcFR’s previously, these proposals are unlikely to be any cheaper than deep geological storage, still require reprocessing and of course GcFR technology doesn’t yet exist!
While there might be some case (a dubious one at that) for using one or two Fast Reactors (and I do mean literally “one” or maybe “two” of them) to dispose of the UK’s stockpile of plutonium that’s really about it. Indeed, reading the Harvard & MIT report I get the impression that Vitrification is a better option. But certainly the best solution to the UK’s nuclear waste problem is almost certainly deep geological burial.
Time for Compromise?
It would seem to me that we’re in a bit of a Mexican standoff. Both sides (the Enivornmentalists and the Government) want the waste put away and stored safely. I would propose a pragmatic approach to the situation.
I’d start off by proposing that the location of any future deep geological facility be determined on grounds of public safety and geology, not punch and Judy politics. If that means putting it under the Midlands (as the BGS study from 1980’s above seems to indicate) or off the Surrey coast or indeed under the lake District, then so be it. I would even propose a referendum about the matter to address the democratic deficit that’s always dogged the nuclear industry in the UK.
I would also propose a quid-pro-quo. That the government agree to a mandatory limit (enshrined in law, that referendum would be a good time to do it) as to how many nuclear reactors it can construct and that any subsidy system offered to nuclear has to be offered to equivalent low carbon energy technologies also (such as offshore wind, tidal or solar technologies).
Now while such a proposal might sound like both sides conceding a lot, the reality is it’s more of them writing out a statement of fact and signing it. As I’ve long argued the Tories nuclear ambitions are all but impossible to achieve. Similarly the markets, who by and large have rejected nuclear power, will not accept a situation where one source of energy is given a generous backhander and others are left to live on porridge. Tory backbenchers also need to get over their pathological hatred of all things renewable, as its going to be impossible for the UK to avoid becoming dangerously dependent on Russian gas and Middle Eastern oil, without relying on renewables to some degree.
I would therefore argue that responsible environmentalism and responsible government, requires that a deep geological storage facility be built, if not in Cumbria then somewhere else in the UK.