Bury it deep under the carpet, along with all of nuclear's other problems

Posted by bex — 28 July 2006 at 8:00am - Comments
A radioactive waste dump in Buryakovka, Russia

A radioactive waste dump in Buryakovka, Russia

CoRWM has recommended that the UK should manage its radioactive waste pile through "deep geological disposal", also known as deep dumping.

You'd be forgiven for not getting too excited by this news; so what if another acronym has made another wordy recommendation to the government?

The problem is that this particular acronym stands for the "Committee on Radioactive Waste Management", the body tasked with finding a solution to dealing with the UK's solid radioactive waste - all half a million tonnes of it.

On the basis of CoRWMs final recommendations, Tony Blair and the nuclear industry will likely claim that there is now a solution to this dangerous waste legacy and that there are no problems in building a new generation of nuclear reactors which will create even more nuclear waste. However, they couldn't be further from the truth.

Even the chair of CoRWM admits that "clearly our recommendations do not solve the problem". But CoRWM has still gone ahead and recommended deep dumping as the "best available solution" - yet it has also acknowledged there is no failsafe 'solution' for nuclear waste.

When industry started using nuclear fission it did so with the excitement of a child with a new toy. Split those atoms! Build those bombs! Make that electricity! Never mind that it had no idea what to do with the deadly by-products from its civil and military nuclear activities.

Little thought was given to the fact that some of the waste remains radioactive for up to a million years, and that there could never be a guaranteed way to dispose of it that would ensure it doesn't leak back into the environment.

The problem with deep dumping in particular is that it relies on a multi barrier approach, although it is also accepted that over time the integrity of these barriers will be compromised and radioactive contamination will return to the surface via the groundwater. In other words, it is clear that 'disposing' of radioactive waste in a deep 'repository' accepts by default the outdated premise of eventual dispersal and dilution into the environment - rather like dumping industrial waste into a river - posing a persistent, irreversible threat to future generations.

In short, the plan is to bury tens of thousands of tonnes of radioactively contaminated material in the ground without even expecting it to be contained in the long-term.

"This is an environmental time bomb," says Greenpeace campaigner, Jean McSorley. "The waste containers will inevitably degrade and leak. At present we just don't have the guarantees necessary to sign-off on deep disposal. The most environmentally acceptable option is be to keep the waste at nuclear sites where trained staff can monitor and retrieve it if necessary."

Waste that has been geologically disposed of is ultimately non-retrievable ie the decision to deep dump is irreversible. The geological disposal option would involve either direct geological disposal or phased geological disposal. While direct geological disposal involves the waste being placed in purpose built structures, back filled and then sealed, phased geological disposal means that the waste would be retrievable, possibly for up to 200 years, although in the longer term these sites will also be back filled and sealed. These options therefore deny future generations the possibility of using future technologies to find a better solution.

Instead of irreversibly contaminating the Earth, we should keep the waste in secure, above ground facilities, so that future generations have more opportunity to monitor the wastes and reduce the risk of living with radioactively contaminated sites.

"The fundamental lesson from the past 50 years of waste accumulation must be not to create any more of this dangerous waste," says Jean McSorley. "That means Tony Blair should not propose building any new nuclear reactors."

Unfortunately, Blair is determined to do just that. And, with a million years of contamination at stake, it's down to us to stop him.

Check our map to see if you live near a potential waste dump - and print posters to warn your neighbours.


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