Last week, Boris Johnson announced plans to power 25% of the country’s electricity with nuclear power. But the UK’s quest to lock down deep Geological Disposal Facilities (GDF) and the unique challenges related to nuclear waste management with new technologies remain unresolved.
One of the major investments in the UK’s nuclear power expansion programs includes Rolls-Royce’s small modular nuclear reactors. The technology of these reactors is so new, that effective toxic waste management remains a question mark. “It is essential to talk about the back end of the nuclear fuel cycle when you are considering building new nuclear power stations,” Claire Corkhill, a professor of nuclear material degradation at the University of Sheffield and a member of the Committee on Radioactive Waste Management, told The Guardian. “Whilst we have a plan to finally and safely deal with the waste, it is less certain how this will be applied to the modern nuclear reactors that the government are planning to roll out.”
While a shift to alternative energy sources has been crucial for the economic survival of many nations since the war in Ukraine, the infrastructure is often not yet in place to successfully accommodate the transition. And in the case of storing nuclear waste, public safety and environmental concerns are of order. Nuclear power has always been controversial and raises environmental concerns related to “the creation of radioactive wastes such as uranium mill tailings, spent (used) reactor fuel, and other radioactive wastes.” A report by Sizewell C – Spent Fuel, safety, storage, environmental health, and funding clarifies that “although heat falls rapidly in the Spent Fuel after reactor removal, it requires cooling for up to 140 years before reaching sufficiently low enough bentonite boundary temperatures for geological storage requirements. It also requires effectively shielding indefinitely.”
Currently, a large amount of the 5 million tons of radioactive waste produced in the UK each year is stored at Sellafield, Cumbria, with high-hazard facilities that are decades old. The UK government has developed a GDF strategy to bury toxic waste hundreds of meters underground, which research by the Nuclear Waste Services describes as “internationally recognised as the safest long-term solution”.
Crucial in this strategy is the cooperation of local communities. In 2021, two Cumbria sites had been selected for nuclear waste disposal as well as Hartlepool in the North of England. The local upheaval in response to the plans together with Cumbria’s rejection of the underground storage plans back in 2013, does not bode well for the government’s ambitions. “These are completely different to previous reactors, and we are at a very early stage of understanding how to deal with the waste,” Corkhill further explains. “In my personal view, I do not think we should be building any new nuclear reactors until we have a geological disposal facility available.” Sign this petition to tell the UK to clean up neglected nuclear waste storage sites!
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