In the same week that the big guns of the energy efficiency world, including the Energy Saving Trust and the Association for the Conservation of Energy, called for energy saving to be declared a top infrastructure priority, and spending increased to a mere £4bn per year to tackle both fuel poverty and climate change, the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) has announced that its undiscounted nuclear waste liabilities have increased by £6.6bn to £110bn but warned that next year the total would “increase significantly” once it had fully assessed a new “performance plan” for the Sellafield site.
£5.4bn of the increase has resulted from a reassessment of the work required at Sellafield which is now estimated to cost £79.1bn to clean up or 72% of total liabilities. £0.5bn is a result of the additional scope of work to be carried out at Dounreay in order to transport weapons-grade plutonium and various other exotic fuels mostly by train to Sellafield. (See the NDA’s Annual Report and Accounts 2013-14)
When the original White Paper proposing the establishment of the NDA was published in 2002, undiscounted liabilities were estimated to be £48bn. Although costs were expected to “increase still further in the short term as the full extent of what needs to be done is identified”, in the longer term they were expected to come down as a result if competition driving down costs. Today, more than a decade later costs have more than doubled with no sign of reductions in the near future.
Since the publication of Towards a Safer Cumbria last year, Friends of the Earth West Cumbria and North Lakes has been asking the Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR) ‘why it hasn’t ordered an end to the reprocessing of spent nuclear waste fuel’ – given that in 2008 new storage tanks for the high-level liquid waste produced by reprocessing were needed “with the utmost urgency”. And in 2000 ONR’s predecessor, the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate (NII) warned that the tanks needed to be emptied and the waste solidified “as soon as reasonably practicable”, and levels must be reduced to a buffer level by 2015. Any shortfall would be “publicly unacceptable”. But we now know there is no prospect of reducing the stocks of liquid to a buffer level by 2015 and new tanks can’t be provided until 2019, yet new liquid waste continues to be generated at Sellafield.
ONR’s response to FoE is that it has a number of priorities including but not limited to reducing high level waste stocks – implying that there must be safety concerns on the Sellafield site which are more worrying than the possibility of a terrorist attack or accident involving the high-level waste tanks, despite the fact that this could require the evacuation of an area between Liverpool and Glasgow and cause 2 million fatalities.
In the NDA’s most recent Annual Report and Accounts it is not the tanks containing this extremely dangerous heat-generating liquid high level waste that appear to be the focus of concern. It seems to be “Legacy Ponds and Silos” that cause most worry. Chief Executive John Clarke highlights ponds where spent nuclear waste fuel from Britain’s First Generation of nuclear reactors known as Magnox reactors was stored. Some of this waste was so corroded it formed a sludge at the bottom of the pond. The construction of a Sludge Packaging Plant was completed this year. Once retrieved from these high hazard facilities, this waste will then have to be encapsulated and stored.
In 2002 The Observer, reported on a document released by the now defunct nuclear waste agency – Nirex, which discussed this same category of waste. It translated the carefully worded Nirex document as meaning that “almost 90 per cent of Britain’s hazardous nuclear waste stockpile is so badly stored it could explode or leak with devastating results at any time”. Two government advisory committees which no longer exist – the Radioactive Waste Management Advisory Committee (RWMAC) and the Nuclear Safety Advisory Committee (NuSAC) also reported in 2002 that by 1998 only 12% of existing Intermediate Level Waste (ILW) had been conditioned, and that some historic wastes:
“… may be poorly characterised. Physically and chemically degraded and held in old facilities subject to deterioration. Considerable effort is often needed to find suitable means of retrieving, conditioning and storing these wastes. Attention has also been drawn to other challenging wastes, including material where effective immobilisation is difficult, and materials with inherent hazards (such as reactive metals and high fissile content).”
Despite John Clarke’s upbeat assessment of progress, the National Audit Office’s description of the situation at Sellafield in 2012 suggests progress since 2002 has been extremely limited:
“Some of the older facilities at Sellafield containing highly hazardous radioactive waste have deteriorated so much that their contents pose significant risks to people and the environment. The highest risks are posed by the ponds and silos built during the 1950s and 1960s to store fuel for early reprocessing operations and radioactive waste … the exact quantity and type of hazardous material on the site had yet to be fully investigated.”
The NDA’s contractor for the Sellafield site – Sellafield Ltd – run by a consortium of companies made up of URS of the US, France’s Areva and Amec of the UK – has recently submitted a new plan for the site. This makes clear that the expected characteristics and estimated volumes of the waste material are based on very limited samples from an unknown and not fully documented inventory. Consequently, significant uncertainties will remain in the capability and capacity of the treatment plants required to handle all wastes until such time as the last waste is removed. In other words, we don’t really know what sort of waste we have to deal with at Sellafield, nor do we know how much there is. This means that future costs are subject to high levels of uncertainty. John Clarke says it is likely that the £110bn estimate:
“…will increase significantly as we complete our scrutiny of the plan and better understand the ranges of uncertainties within it. It is also clear that it may take several iterations of the Sellafield plan before this level of uncertainty can be reduced to a level where cost estimates become more stable.”
In other words, we don’t know how much waste we’ve got, or what the waste is, and we have no idea what it is going to cost to deal with it. Surely the NDA ought to be making better progress than it has done over the past decade, but the least it can do is to STOP PRODUCING MORE WASTE.