In July 2006 the Committee on Radioactive Waste Management made recommendations to the Government on managing radioactive waste . But those recommendations dealt only with legacy waste – waste from existing reactors. CoRWM said it takes no position on the desirability or otherwise of nuclear new build, but that such decisions “…should be subject to their own public assessment process [because they] raise different political and ethical issues when compared with the consideration of wastes which already exist”.1
CoRWM said that new build waste will extend the time-scales for implementation of any solution to the waste problem, possibly for very long but essentially unforeseeable future periods. The Committee also noted that the prospect of a new nuclear programme might undermine proposals for urgently dealing with existing wastes.
An open and transparent assessment process on new build waste should be carried out before any further decisions are taken on new nuclear reactorWaste from new reactors
In July 2021 Radioactive Waste Management Ltd. (RWM) – a wholly owned subsidiary of the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) published its 2019 Inventory for Geological Disposal (IGD). The volume of radioactive waste, once packaged, expected to be produced by existing nuclear facilities and a 16GW new nuclear programme, is 773,000 m3 – about the volume of 6,900 double-decker buses.
RWM estimate that around 10% of this volume is attributable to new nuclear stations. However, the total radioactivity of the inventory in the year 2200 is estimated to be 28,000,000 terabecquerels (TBq). New build spent fuel would dominate in terms of radioactivity for at least the first 100,000 years after closure of a deep geological disposal facility (GDF). New Build Spent Fuel represents 19,000,000 TBq of this activity or 67% of the total whilst spent MoX (mixed-oxide uranium-plutonium fuel) is another 13% (3,700,000 TBq).
Whilst spent fuel and wastes from an assumed new build programme would dominate the radioactivity content of the waste for over 100,000 years after the GDF is closed, it is Depleted, Natural and Low Enriched Uranium (DNLEU) which dominate later, because its activity decays more slowly. Indeed, the activity associated with DNLEU initially increases.
The Inventory assumes that 95% of the civil plutonium stockpile is converted to MOX fuel and irradiated; and that 16GW of new nuclear stations are built – the equivalent of 10 EPR reactors or 5 stations the size of Hinkley Point C (although both of these outcomes currently appear highly unlikely).
The importance of looking at the radioactivity of the waste, and not just the volume, is illustrated by the estimated area of land underground required for different scenarios. This varies according to the type of rock in which the GDF might be constructed. Clearly a new nuclear programme looks set to at least double the area required underground to bury nuclear waste.
|Type of Rock||2010 Baseline (without new build)||With a 10GW new build programme||With a 16GW new build programme|
|Higher strength rock||6 km2||10 km2||11 km2|
|Lower strength sedimentary rock||10 km2||20 km2||23 km2|
|Evaporite rock||9 km2||18 km2||22 km2|
 The Final Report of the West Cumbria Managing Radioactive Waste Safely Partnership August 2012 http://www.westcumbriamrws2013.info/images/final-report.pdf See page 77
What will happen to waste from new reactors?
Unlike the spent fuel from the existing reactors which, apart from Sizewell B, is transported by train to Sellafield in Cumbria and until recently was reprocessed, but is now stored in storage ponds. Spent fuel from Sizewell B is stored at Sizewell in a dry store.
A GDF is not expected to be ready to receive its first waste until the 2040s. Waste from new reactors like Hinkley Point C is not expected to be emplaced in the GDF until after all our existing waste has been emplaced which is expected to take around 90 years – around 2130. This means that spent fuel from new reactors could remain on the site for over 100 years.
The other factor which needs to be taken into account is that new reactors are expected to use high-burn up fuel which could require up to 100 years of cooling before it will be cool enough to be emplaced in a GDF. (See Footnote 20 here). New reactors are expected to gave a life of 60 years, so a reactors coming on stream around 2030, may need to be store spent fuel until about 2190.
Although EDF Energy said in its pre-application consultation documents that it’s possible spent fuel might start to be transported off site during the lifetime of Hinkley Point C, it is prudent to plan to store all of the lifetime arisings of the two reactors which are planned. The plan is to store spent fuel from Hinkley Point C in spent fuel storage ponds. EDF is planning to be able to extend the life of the storage ponds for up to 100 years after the reactors close.
A recent study in the US detailed how a major fire in a spent fuel pond “could dwarf the horrific consequences of the Fukushima accident.” The author Frank von Hippel, a nuclear security expert at Princeton University, who teamed with Princeton’s Michael Schoeppner on the modeling exercise said “We’re talking about trillion-dollar consequences.”
Climate Scientists are now warning that rising sea levels pose a far greater danger than previously estimated. There is now a major risk that many coastal areas around the world will be inundated by the end of the century because Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets are melting faster than previously estimated. The increasing possibility of severe storm surges will add to the vulnerability of several sites where nuclear waste could be stored. For more on Sea Level Rise see nuClear News No.122 February 2020