Nuclear waste: bury it and forget?
By Jeremy Lovell
SELLAFIELD (Reuters) – It is the regular beeping that
grates. But if it stops, prepare to be scared.
The signal audible every second in every corridor of the
high-level toxic nuclear waste plant on Britain’s sprawling
Sellafield site is a sign all the alarms are working. If it
stops, or changes tone, something has gone very wrong.
“The people who work here every day tell me they get used
to it. But it tends to get on the nerves of everyone who visits
the plant,” Sellafield information officer Ben Chilton told
Reuters on a tour of the site 480 km (300 miles) northwest of
The alarms are crucial for an industry that believes it
could be granted a new lease of life as the world searches for
an alternative to fossil fuels, such as coal and oil, that
produce carbon emissions, blamed for global warming.
The nuclear industry says its technology emits no carbon
and does not cause global warming but for many, still wary
after disasters like the 1986 explosion at Chernobyl, the
lingering fear is that the toxic waste might leak and kill.
Sellafield, and a plant at La Hague in northern France, can
each reprocess 5,000 tones of spent nuclear fuel each year,
accounting for roughly a third of annual global output.
But there will be more waste. China plans to build 30 new
nuclear reactors by 2020, India has struck a deal with the
United States to build several more plants, the United States
is lining up tax incentives for new generators and Britain is
considering new plants to plug a looming energy gap.
The sludge that flows down the heavily armored pipe into
Sellafield’s vitrification plant after plutonium and uranium
have been taken from spent fuel rods for reuse is a hell’s brew
still emitting 40 times a lethal dose of radiation.
In shielded chambers with technicians watching through
meter-thick leaded glass windows and using remote mechanical
arms, the toxic stew is cooked down to a powder, combined with
molten glass and poured into stainless steel urns.
These are cooled, closed and scrubbed before being sealed
in insulated steel flasks and taken away for storage where,
standing 10 deep in a concrete core and capped by a three-meter
(10-foot) plug, the heat from the radiation is still tangible.
There are nearly 4,000 of these containers stored at
Sellafield, which was the world’s first commercial nuclear
power plant when it opened in 1956, with room for 4,000 more.
Final disposal of the waste involves burying it in
geologically stable formations. The half-life of plutonium is
24,000 years — in other words, it would take up to 250,000
years before it degrades completely.
Chilton said waste comes from Britain, which has 11 nuclear
plants, and from countries as far away as Japan, the third
biggest nuclear power user after the United States and France.
Sellafield’s scientists are confident they have the answers
on waste and believe nuclear power can help ease climate
“From a technical point of view we can deal with any waste
that comes from nuclear plants,” said Graham Fairhall of
Nexiasolutions, the research arm of the British Nuclear Group.
But for the green lobby, nuclear waste is an unacceptable
legacy, whatever the benefits of nuclear power.
“Nuclear power is dirty, dangerous and expensive,” said
Tony Juniper of Friends of the Earth. “We are only talking
seriously about nuclear power again because of climate change.
But it is not the answer.”
Environmentalists say the costs of nuclear energy are not
clear because of government subsidies and the toxic waste.
The latest estimate on the cost of cleaning up the waste
from the last 50 years is 56 billion pounds ($97 billion),
“There may be technical solutions to dealing with the waste
that will be generated, but note that they are still trying to
deal with the waste they have already created,” he told
The British government, which has covered the costs so far,
says finance for new reactors must come from the private
An energy review in Britain, which faces a 20 percent power
shortfall within a decade as aging nuclear and coal-powered
plants shut down, is due to be ready by the middle of the year.
It is not just the high-level waste from fuel rods that has
to be dealt with. Intermediate-level waste such as the casings
of nuclear fuel rods, and low-level waste such as that produced
in hospitals also has to be processed and stored.
Intermediate waste is chopped up and put in steel barrels
that are filled with concrete and stored, while low-level waste
is put in steel boxes that are crushed and put in a container,
which is then filled with concrete and buried.
Industry experts say high, intermediate or low-level waste
does not pose a security risk as one would need
industrial-style resources — like protective gear and
surroundings — to even approach the high-level waste, and the
other two forms are either non-retrievable or non-lethal.
Public opinion in Britain is gradually swinging toward
accepting nuclear energy to help combat climate change — 54
percent were in favor according to a poll this year — despite
worries about the waste and security.
But while the nuclear industry says a Chernobyl-scale
disaster could not happen here because the technology is
different, some of the legacy problems remain a major headache.
At Sellafield, 49 years after a fire forced the closure of
the Windscale I military reactor, scientists are still trying
to work out how to dismantle the chimney-top filter that
trapped the radioactive smoke and stopped a nuclear