Nuclear waste is a problem. Specifically, we need to resolve the long-term storage and management of nuclear waste stockpiles in ways that reduce or negate their environmental impact – and it is irrelevant whether you are for or against nuclear power generation being part of the future energy portfolio of the UK, or indeed the world. That’s because: 1) Legacy nuclear waste (waste from previous nuclear energy and weapons programmes) will remain an environmental hazard if not permanently contained; and, 2) Nuclear power generation is set to continue and nuclear waste stockpiles will continue to grow.
Incidents close to home. Nuclear waste has the potential to cause considerable environmental damage if it is not disposed of correctly. The UK used to perform bulk maritime disposal of some of its nuclear waste, but this practice was contentious and is now regulated by the Radioactive Substances Act 1993. Records of the release of radioactive material into the Irish Sea from the Sellafield nuclear site between 1951 and 1992 show that maritime disposal reached its maximum prior to 1985. Most of this was effluent from the PUREX process, which involves the chemical separation of uranium and plutonium. Additional filter systems and tighter laws, encouraged by activist groups and swaying public opinion saw the reduction in these maritime discharges. The age old, ‘dilute and disperse’ methodology is not something that has support today – and rightly so.
What about the future? Continued improvements in the management of nuclear waste allow the most highly radioactive components to be separated and consolidated. However, without an approved method of disposal, this waste continues to accumulate and long-term solutions are crucial to reduce the risk of a future environmental disaster. One solution that has been postulated is to set up a Geological Disposal Facility (GDF) in the UK, where the waste is deposited deep underground to decay in a place where the environmental impact is minimal. At present no site has been approved for a UK GDF, but it would be prudent to agree upon and execute a strategy for dealing with nuclear waste without further delay. Putting our heads in the sand and leaving a problem created in our lifetimes for future generations to deal with would be negligent at best, and could be considered reckless.
Dr. David Mills is a Lecturer of Chemistry at The University of Manchester