Waste opportunities

Radioactive waste is a major concern with nuclear energy, and strict legal control on any future solutions will be needed to deal with it. Matthew Williams and Lis Blunsdon report

All the waste in a year from a nuclear power plant can be stored under a desk.” So proclaimed Ronald Reagan in a somewhat simplistic take on the global nuclear waste management problem. And you can safely assume that it was not his own desk that he had in mind.

But whatever the individual’s view of possible plans to build new nuclear power stations in the UK, the fact remains that the UK already has a substantial inventory of radioactive waste that has been accumulating, from a range of sources, since the 1920s. Decommissioning the UK’s ageing fleet of nuclear reactors has already begun, so there will be significantly more waste to come, even without any new build.

Compared with the new-build debate, radioactive waste management has not grabbed many headlines, but an effective strategy will be key to both the successful decommissioning of existing stations and the building of any new nuclear power stations in future.

Waste problems
Currently there are no national long-term arrangements for managing high-level waste (HLW) and intermediate-level waste (ILW). Holders of nuclear site licences are required to ensure that waste arising from operations at each licensed site is managed so as to protect people and the environment, both now and in the future. In practice, this means that each licensed site has quantities of waste being temporarily stored on-site with nowhere to go in the long term.

The issue of course is not new. Many hundreds of millions of pounds have been spent and several decades have passed trying to find and implement a solution. Since 1976 government policy for the long-term management of solid radioactive waste has favoured deep underground disposal.

In 1982 the Nuclear Industry Radioactive Waste Executive (Nirex) was tasked with locating, building and managing disposal facilities for ILW. Sellafield was eventually selected and a planning application was submitted in 1994. In 1997, following a public inquiry and a damning report, the application was rejected and Nirex’s plans were left in tatters.

Following this debacle the Conservative Government decided that a comprehensive radioactive waste management strategy should be established, based on a thorough review of all possible options. As a result, the Committee on Radioactive Waste Management (CoRWM) was established in 2003. On 31 July this year, the CoRWM published the report ‘Managing Our Radioactive Waste Safely’.

This report identifies geological disposal (the burying of waste deep underground, with no intention to retrieve it) as the best option for disposal of HLW and ILW. This conclusion is consistent with the approaches taken by the Swedish, Finnish and US governments, the latter currently pursuing the licensing process for its Yucca Mountain repository.

However, CoRWM is under no illusions about the challenges to be faced in implementing such a plan and recognises that a “robust programme” of interim storage will be needed for several decades while long-term plans are developed.

Ethical issues
The CoRWM report is a thorough, rational, well-reasoned document, which is the culmination of several years of deliberations. The message that comes through loud and clear is that many of the most difficult issues raised by the debate on radioactive waste management are ethical and social – a view that has been reached by looking at experiences both in the UK and elsewhere.

The report concludes that the ‘top-down’ approach of previous governments to decision-making, characterised as ‘decide-announce-defend’ simply does not work anymore (insofar as it ever did previously), and the ethical issues raised by the impact that decisions taken now might have on future generations are complex and challenging.

The report sets out a series of recommendations as to how the ultimate goal of geological disposal might be achieved, and a recurring theme is the need for public and stakeholder involvement at every stage. Once geologically suitable areas have been identified, communities wishing to host a disposal facility would be invited to participate from the earliest stages. Community participation would be developed on a partnership approach and communities would participate on the expectation that the wellbeing of that community would be enhanced by the project. Crucially, communities would have the right to withdraw from the process up to a predefined point.

While to some it might seem unlikely that any community would actually volunteer to have a nuclear waste disposal facility sited on its doorstep, experience abroad, particularly in Sweden and Finland, has shown that the approach can work given the right framework. And that framework will of course include a quid pro quo of community benefits for the host region.

Legal challenges
Aside from the ethical and social issues, what are some of the other key challenges that will need to be met?
A major challenge that will face lawmakers will be the need to grapple with the staggering timeframes involved in dealing with radioactive waste. Some wastes remain radioactive for tens of thousands of years. Even assuming that a repository can be sited and constructed relatively quickly, it will take a period of up to several hundred years for the repository to be filled and sealed.

Devising the initial legislative, contractual and institutional arrangements that will be relevant for perhaps a hundred years is a daunting enough challenge. But constructing a longer-term legal framework that is sufficiently stable in order to satisfy investors, but does not unduly fetter the future decisions of government and stakeholders as political, environmental and technical parameters change, will prove a challenge in the extreme.

Another challenge is funding. Financing any long-term solution is likely to be extremely complex. The Swedish and Finnish models provide for a fee for the management of nuclear liabilities to be included in the price of electricity, which is set aside in a state-controlled fund.

But will that be enough? As the restructuring of British Energy proved, the costs that come with managing nuclear liabilities are as daunting as the timescales involved. British Energy only survived by virtue of the Government stepping in and taking responsibility for the long-term management of its nuclear liabilities in return for 65 per cent of British Energy’s net cashflow and a significant amount of debt in the restructured company.

Would the market tolerate a commensurate level of subsidy associated with new build liabilities, and what would it mean for competition with non-nuclear and imported generation? Doubtless the role of state funding and guarantees will need to be investigated, together with the associated and controversial issue of state aid.

The CoRWM report should be welcomed and considered starting point in developing a long-term solution to the management of the UK’s radioactive waste. Learning from the mistakes already made in the UK and building on the experiences of other countries, it should be possible to surmount the various challenges and reach a solution that deals safely with our nuclear legacy. Whatever the final solution turns out to be, one thing is for certain: there is still a lot of work to do. n
Matthew Williams is a partner and Lis Blunsdon is counsel at Hunton & Williams”