Friday, August 12, 2005

Getting to grips with nuclear inheritance / Home UK - Getting to grips with nuclear inheritance

By Rebecca Bream
Published: August 11 2005 22:17 | Last updated: August 11 2005 22:17

Sir Anthony Cleaver, the chairman of the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, recognises he has one of the toughest jobs in the country.

In what can only be described as understatement, he said yesterday as he unveiled the NDA’s draft strategy on cleaning up Britain’s 20 nuclear sites: “We are still getting to grips with our inheritance.”

The authority, created in April to deal with one of the largest, most expensive and time-consuming problems the country will have to face in decades to come, has made safety its top priority.

This is particularly relevant to what are considered its most hazardous sites, such as the Sellafield nuclear complex, which accounts for two-thirds of the UK’s civil nuclear liabilities, and the Dounreay plant in Scotland.

The Sellafield complex in Cumbria includes the Calder Hall Magnox power station, the Drigg waste disposal facility, the Windscale research centre and the thermal oxide reprocessing plant (Thorp), which has been shut since April because of a radioactive leak.

In the strategy document, the NDA said that because Sellafield stored both its own waste and highly radioactive waste from other plants it would be difficult to remove radioactive waste completely. Decommissioning of the facilities would take 75 years, the NDA warned, but there were immediate steps that could be taken to reduce some of the risks. The site includes waste ponds and silos dating back to the UK’s earliest military nuclear programmes in the 1940s. They “present a considerable safety challenge”.

There was an urgent need to retrieve this waste before the facilities deteriorated, “with the ultimate potential for an uncontrolled release of radioactivity”, it said. “It is important to tackle these challenges while we have the knowledge and experience to do so and not leave unresolved problems for future generations.” The NDA suggests encasing this waste in glass, a process known as vitrification.

Another challenge that the NDA has set itself is the dismantling of the UK’s 11 ageing Magnox nuclear power stations and rehabilitating the sites within 25 to 30 years instead of the original target of 125 years.

The Magnox plants, such as Dungeness in Kent, were built in the 1960s and 1970s and many of them have already been closed down. In the original decommissioning plan, the worst of the radiation at the plants was to be contained within 10 to 15 years and then the sites would be left for 70 or so years before it was safe to complete the task.

The NDA, which was established as part of a restructuring of the government’s nuclear bodies, has taken a fresh look at the decommissioning issues and wants work on the Magnox plants to be accelerated.

Sir Anthony said leaving such a gap between the two stages of the clean-up could pose a security risk and would also lead to a loss of vital skills in the industry. The NDA said new technology meant robots could be sent to clean while sites re-mained unsafe for humans.

All this work is going to be expensive. The NDA said the cost of the entire process would be higher than the current estimate of £56bn, which was already well over the original figure of £48bn. But Ian Roxburgh, chief executive of the NDA, said that costs could come down in years to come once more efficient ways of doing the work had been found.

The NDA’s consultation comes as the government is formulating its views on whether to build a new generation of nuclear power stations. Those in favour say more reliance on nuclear power, which does not produce carbon dioxide emissions, will help the country meet Kyoto protocol targets and battle global warming. It would also reduce reliance on imported oil and gas from Russia and the Gulf after the North Sea gas supplies run out.

Opponents raise the question of who would pay the high cost of building the plants and whether nuclear power would disrupt the functioning of the liberalised electricity market. But the main argument against is likely to be the problem of dealing with nuclear waste.


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