Guardian UK | 30.06.2002 12:05
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Nuclear stores 'on verge of exploding'
Sunday June 30, 2002
Almost 90 per cent of Britain's hazardous nuclear waste stockpile is so badly stored it could explode or leak with devastating results at any time.
An alarming government report into Britain's beleaguered nuclear industry - obtained by The Observer - reveals that medium-level radioactive waste with the equivalent mass to 725 double-decker buses is being stored in a dangerous state.
The Radioactive Waste Management Advisory Committee found that 88 per cent of Britain's intermediate-level nuclear waste had not been treated for safe storage at up to 24 UK locations.
Experts last night warned the potentially volatile waste represented a toxic time-bomb and warned of a 'disaster waiting to happen'.
A source at Nirex, the firm in charge of disposing of Britain's nuclear waste, admitted the situation was 'outrageous'.
Peter Roche of Greenpeace said much of the material remained acutely unstable until it was properly treated. Billions of pounds of taxpayers'
money will be required to tackle the growing mountain of unstable nuclear waste.
The report, received by Environment Secretary Margaret Beckett and Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon last week, reveals that volatile material can spontaneously combust in air, explode on contact with water or leak in liquid form can be found at nuclear sites across Britain.
It expressed concern that most of the UK's medium-level nuclear material was kept in 'ageing' facilities.'The nuclear industry likes to give the impression that all its waste is safely stored, but the truth of the
matter is these findings prove there are disasters waiting to happen at nuclear sites across the country,' added Roche.
The findings increase fears that nuclear sites are tempting terrorist targets .'A malicious attack, power failure or a building collapsing could have awful consequences for society,' said Roche.
Michael Meacher, Environment Minister, denied the material was unsafe but conceded there was a serious problem over waste storage.
'The nuclear industry has to face up to this. It has to be conditioned before it is stored and there remains no satisfactory agreement on how this should be done,' he said.
The medium-level nuclear waste stockpile is spread among the major nuclear plants, including Sellafield in Cumbria, Dounreay in Caithness and Harwell in Oxfordshire, as well as nuclear power stations and Royal Dockyards
such as Devonport in Plymouth and Rosyth, Fife.
During their 14-month investigation, officials from the advisory committee found 65,208 of Britain's 74,100 cubic metres of medium-level nuclear waste had yet to be treated to be stored safely.
A source at Nirex said: 'It's outrageous that most of Britain's nuclear waste is still not properly conditioned and is lying in its raw state.'
Intermediate-level nuclear waste involves radioactive material taken from a nuclear reactor and equipment from the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel.
Workers require protective shielding and suits when handling the waste which is highly toxic to humans. The report also reveals frustration over British
Nuclear Fuels handling of the waste crisis.
It says the Government's Nuclear Installations Inspectorate has resorted to using its legal powers to force BNFL 'to target areas on the Sellafield site where waste management practice or progress has not been acceptable'.
Fred Barker, chairman of the working group that compiled the report, said: 'It's important to cast a spotlight on what needs to be done on the
level of untreated waste.'
An announcement on Thursday will confirm BNFL is to be broken up because it cannot afford the clean-up costs of the nuclear waste stockpile.
Estimates place the clean-up bill at £1.8 billion a year for the next 20 years.
The announcement is also expected to unveil details about the setting up of a new Liabilities Management Authority to take over the running of Sellafield, Harwell and Dounreay in order to tackle the waste mountain.
Governments have postponed a decision on what to do with medium-level waste that has accumulated since Britain began its nuclear programme in the early 1950s.
Tom Watson, Labour MP for West Bromwich East, said: 'We are now at a point when tough decisions on safety have to be made. We can't afford to duck out any longer.
'There has to be an independent body whose sole goal is the long-term management of nuclear waste.'
Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2002
Britain's nuclear danger
Britain has no idea of how to deal with dangerous nuclear waste, yet keeps producing more of it says a leading Greenpeace activist, explaining why today's Observer revelations matter
Sunday June 30, 2002
We already know that British Nuclear Fuels (BNFL) has almost 1600 cubic metres of extremely dangerous liquid high level waste, which has to be constantly cooled, stored in tanks at its Sellafield site in Cumbria.
An accident or malicious act which caused just 50% of the radioactivity to escape would be equivalent to 44 Chernobyls. We also know that Sellafield
has a stockpile of around 70 tonnes of weapons-useable plutonium, and that this could increase to 150 tonnes over the next decade or so.
The House of Lords Science and Technology Committee has called for the bulk of this to be declared a waste, making a mockery of BNFL's main business which is to separate plutonium from spent nuclear waste fuel.
Mark Townsend's story now focuses on the problems associated with Intermediate-Level Waste (ILW), which, although it doesn't generate its
own heat like high-level waste, is still extremely dangerous, and requires very careful stewardship. The current nuclear programme will generate some
215,000 cubic metres of this category of waste, 74,000 cubic metres of which are already stored at sites around the UK - more than half at Sellafield.
Surprisingly 5,000 cubic metres are located in Oxfordshire at Harwell, 2,000 cubic metres at Aldermaston, and the rest spread around the nuclear
station sites and Royal Dockyards.
What is particularly worrying about the Observer revelations is that 88% of the ILW is not stored in, what is called a 'safe, passive Form'. In
other words it is in a dangerous condition. The Government's Radioactive Waste Management Advisory Committee, in a classic understatement, call this
'unsatisfactory'. This is a committee made up of pro and anti-nuclear voices that has published its findings in a consensus report. So for 'unsatisfactory' read 'outrageous'.
Some 28,000 cubic metres of the waste not stored safely is described by the nuclear industry's waste management agency, Nirex, as 'challenging'.
These are wastes which are difficult to 'immobilise', in other words may easily leak out of their packaging; wastes which could spontaneously combust in contact with normal air; wastes which are far too heterogeneous or
mixed to be safely packaged in their current form.
The Nuclear Installations Inspectorate (NII), the Government's nuclear regulator, reported in 1997 that these wastes may be poorly 'characterised'
- in other words we don't really know what's there; they are 'potentially
mobile' so may leak out into the groundwater or wider environment, and they are in a physically and chemically degraded condition, in '40-50 year
old facilities that fall below current standards and are subject to further deterioration'. In other words, unknown waste, which could easily leak, stored in buildings which are falling down.
Since then the NII has become increasingly concerned at the lack of progress in addressing the problem, and on several occasions recently it has had to resort to using its legal powers to persuade BNFL "to target areas on the
Sellafield site where waste management practice or progress has not been acceptable".
One of the biggest problems seems to be British Nuclear Fuels' reluctance to spend money 'characterising' the waste it has built up over the past five
decades. We have got to know the chemical and physical properties of the waste and the radiation content before we can decide how best to package and store the waste as safely as possible. The company recently spent £400
million building a plant known as 'Drypac' on the Sellafield site. But the plant has still not been commissioned.
According to the company 'Drypac
is taking a breather'. BNFL is having to re-examine the way it deals with its ILW before it can open the plant. A source close to the industry told me that, BNFL was basically hoping to package its ILW on the cheap,
without characterizing the waste first. Now it has wasted £400 million on a new plant, it has realized that the cheap option won't work.
With an announcement about the setting up of a new Liabilities Management Authority which will take over the running of Sellafield, Harwell and Dounreay, expected on Thursday (4th July), we can only hope that the
issue of putting our nuclear wastes into a form that allows it to be stored as safely as possible, will be a top priority, and that there are no disasters in the meantime. But one thing is certain, we cannot let this industry
build, yet more nuclear power stations adding to Britain's growing mountain of dangerous waste which we have no idea what to do with.
Peter Roche is a anti-nuclear campaigner with Greenpeace UK. You can write to him via firstname.lastname@example.org.