A hulking building faced with dirty yellow concrete, B30 sits at the heart of Sellafield, a sprawling nuclear site on the windswept coast of Cumbria in northwest England. Surrounded by a fence topped with razor wire, this is no ordinary building. But it’s only when the small device hooked to the pocket of my guide’s overalls begins to click as we draw closer to the building that my heart skips a beat.
The exterior tells you nothing but inside B30 lies some of the most radioactive waste in the world. It is one of four pond and silo facilities built in the 1950s and 1960s to store irradiated fuel from Britain’s first atomic reactors.
Over the years, it has accumulated large amounts of waste, sludge from corroded fuel casings and other debris that has blown in. B30 is as nasty as they come – hence the clicks from my guide’s pocket gadget, which measures the amount of radiation to which we are exposed. On the outside, we are safe but just a glimpse of B30 is an unsettling reminder of Britain’s nuclear legacy.
The site of a former munitions factory, Sellafield has seen it all. By the early 1950s, the site’s two Windscale reactors, as Sellafield was then known, were making plutonium for nuclear weapons. By the middle of the decade, Calder Hall, the world’s first commercial nuclear power station, was opened. More reactors followed, as did reprocessing activities. Today, the site’s main focus is on managing waste safely and cleaning up the legacy of the past. The estimated cost is £67.5bn and rising.
“Our aim is to put ourselves out of business, to tidy the toys away,” says John Clarke, chief executive of the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, the government body set up in 2005 to oversee the job.
It is no easy task. More than 50 years after the world’s first commercial nuclear power plants started operating in the UK and the US, the tens of thousands of tonnes of spent nuclear fuel in the world still has to find a permanent home.
The absence of a permanent solution for high-level waste is one of the biggest challenges facing the industry as it tries to recover from the deadly disaster at Japan’s Fukushima plant in 2011. Several governments scaled back their expansion plans, with Germany announcing plans to close all its reactors. The International Energy Agency last year predicted that global nuclear generating capacity would reach 580GW in 2035 – a 10 per cent drop from its forecast a year before.
Yet new reactors, and more waste, are not far off. Asian governments are leading the charge but in Europe several countries, including the UK, are progressing with plans for new plants. As a sustained source of low-carbon electricity, many governments have bet their future energy security on nuclear, arguing that it will help them meet tough carbon-reduction targets and keep the lights on. A recent IEA report revealed that Japan’s emissions jumped 5.8 per cent in 2012 as the country imported and burnt large amounts of liquefied natural gas and coal to compensate for the loss of electricity from nuclear plants.
Alvin Weinberg, an American nuclear pioneer, famously said that atomic power represents a Faustian bargain: a valuable source of electricity that carries with it an obligation to deal with the waste.
“New nuclear should not go ahead until we have sorted out the waste problem,” says Doug Parr, chief scientist at Greenpeace, adding that the environmental organisation is “concerned about a new round of spent fuel set to be created”.
Supporters insist that using the waste issue as an argument against building reactors is wrong-headed and that new plants and their waste will be different.
Waste is categorised by its radioactivity level: high, intermediate and low. The volume of high-level waste, mostly liquid byproducts from reprocessing radioactive spent fuel from reactors, is small but it is the biggest problem. Reprocessing separates the useful fuel for recycling from waste. In the UK, the high-level waste accounts for just 0.02 per cent of the total volume of nuclear waste but for 95 per cent of total radioactivity. No man-made container would survive the tens of thousands of years it will take for high-level waste to decay to safe levels. But where to put the remnants of the industry’s past?
One answer is to bury it deep underground. “There is a very strong international consensus that you can dispose of high-level waste in a deep-mine geological disposal site,” says Daniel Metlay, a staff member at the US Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board. “By year 2030, it’s likely that we [the world] will have at least one of these.”
Regulators have developed mathematical computer models that can predict the behaviour of the waste – but there is no way of knowing with certainty how it will behave.
Today, apart from Finland and Sweden, most countries have not agreed on a site for their high-level waste. In the US, the issue has stalled after President Barack Obama withdrew support for a facility in the Yucca Mountains in Nevada. Britain, too, has gone back to the drawing board after Cumbria voted against storing the waste this year.
France, meanwhile, which derives 75 per cent of its electricity from nuclear energy, is seeking to store its waste underground near Bure, a remote area in the east of the country. Public debates have had to be postponed because of local opposition.
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For now, spent fuel from the UK’s reactors is transported to Sellafield in specifically designed flasks, removed and stored in big ponds to cool. It is dissolved in nitric acid and separated into uranium (96 per cent), plutonium (1 per cent) and waste products (3 per cent). The high-level waste is fused into borosilicate glass using a process called vitrification. The resulting mixture is poured into stainless steel canisters and stored pending availability of an underground repository.
Intermediate waste, which includes materials such as fuel element cladding and contaminated equipment, is put into stainless steel drums that are then filled with cement before being stored at the sites where it is created.
Cleaning up the legacy of the past is a particular problem for western nations such as the US and the UK and, to a lesser extent, France, whose involvement in the arms race has left them with military as well as civil waste. In the US, the former plutonium production facility at Hanford in Washington is the subject of a big clean-up operation and political wrangling about rising costs and delays, as well as concerns about contamination of groundwater.
In Europe, the true scale of the challenge is laid bare at Sellafield, the continent’s most complex facility which employs about 10,000 people. Decades of mismanagement and a lack of urgency have dogged the site, which was passed from one government agency to another. During the miners’ strike of 1972, when the imperative was to keep the lights on, the site’s Magnox power reactors were run flat-out, resulting in a faster build-up of spent fuel than they could handle. Much was dumped in the silos and ponds.
“A lot of this legacy waste was created when no one gave much thought to the future. The issue was, it’s safe today,” says Mr Clarke. He recalls speaking to the person who put out a dangerous fire at the site’s Windscale towers in 1957 who told him: “We didn’t think about the future because we weren’t sure there was going to be a future. It was an arms race and the issue was ‘make it safe today’.”
Mr Clarke adds: “It was always going to cost money and I don’t think anyone really ever wanted to spend money on it.”
The NDA’s predecessor, British Nuclear Fuels Limited, was in charge of clean-up as well as pursuing export opportunities for decommissioning and reprocessing waste, in particular for Japanese customers. At one stage it was the UK’s biggest yen earner. Yet its credibility came under repeated fire over a US contract that went wrong. It was also found to have falsified safety data over the quality of fuel for Japan. Some of BNFL’s attempts to deal with the problems at Sellafield were costly and counterproductive; the thermal oxide reprocessing, or Thorp, plant, which was meant to reprocess spent fuel, became a white elephant.
Today, with the coalition government poised to agree a deal for a new generation of reactors, the pressure on the private companies working at the site and the NDA is immense. Sellafield swallows more than half of the NDA’s annual budget, receiving about £1.7bn for this financial year. In February, the Public Accounts committee estimated it would cost £67.5bn to decommission the site and made a stinging attack on the companies in charge. Nuclear Management Partners (NMP), the US-led consortium that won the contract to clean up Sellafield in 2009 and which acts as the parent company of Sellafield Limited, the site licence holder, could lose the contract this year.
“We have an obligation to get it right . . . We are like a shopfront for the nuclear industry,” admits Tony Price, brought in recently by NMP as the managing director of Sellafield Limited. “It’s time now to really focus on delivery,” he adds.
It won’t be easy. Walking around the legacy buildings at Sellafield you are confronted at almost every turn by pipework, some of which is red-brown from decades of corrosion, and cables wending their way round the outside of buildings. Some plants are joined, both in terms of what they do and by the infrastructure they rely on, making the task of cleaning up the site even more difficult.
Almost every small operation requires bespoke engineering and the confined area means contractors often have to shoehorn in equipment dangerously close to contaminated pipework.
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There has been some success over the past decade. The Windscale advanced gas-cooled reactor, an experimental plant built in the 1960s, has been dismantled and is radiation-free. All that remains is a bulbous building known as the “golf ball”.
“At Sellafield we often say you have to build something new before you can actually do something,” says Brian Hough, responsible for socio-economics and stakeholder relations for the NDA in Cumbria.
The issue, says Francis Livens at the Dalton Nuclear Institute, is that nobody knows what is in some of the ponds. “At the moment the industry is using very safe proven technologies but they are often not very sophisticated,” Prof Livens adds. The plan is to handle everything twice – to take the mobile waste from the ponds and silos and move it somewhere that is safe and then move it into waste containers.
In the short term, the pressure is on NMP to deliver at Sellafield. Yet the potential prize is much bigger than just cleaning up one of the world’s most polluted sites. There are potential export contracts for companies involved in the decommissioning work and for west Cumbria it offers much-needed employment opportunities. Success at Sellafield would also mean success on a wider scale.
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Spent fuel: Senate bill pushes temporary storage plan
A bipartisan group of US senators last week introduced a long-awaited bill that would create a federal agency to manage nuclear waste and authorise the construction of temporary, centralised storage. The introduction of the bill is the most significant step by politicians to tackle the country’s atomic legacy since Barack Obama’s administration halted plans for a waste repository at Yucca Mountain, Nevada.
As more nuclear reactors are closing across the country, the issue of what to do with the waste is once again moving up the political agenda. Utilities have announced the retirement of an additional four reactors so far this year.
“This bill takes immediate steps to more safely store the most dangerous radioactive waste and lays out a clear plan for a permanent solution,” Senator Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat and chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources committee, said in a statement. Mr Wyden’s committee plans to hold a hearing on the bill this month.
The proposal would create a new Nuclear Waste Administration, headed by a single administrator and overseen by a five-member board, which would take responsibility of managing nuclear waste from the Department of Energy. The agency would be funded by potentially hundreds of millions of dollars in new fees collected from nuclear power ratepayers, potentially ending the federal government’s costly process of handling waste.
Spent nuclear fuel is stored at numerous commercial nuclear facilities around the US because of the lack of a central repository, while waste from US nuclear weapons programmes is stored at different Department of Energy sites.
The bill would allow construction of an interim storage facility for waste from decommissioned nuclear power plants and emergency shipments from operating plants until a permanent repository is built, a provision that thwarted similar nuclear waste legislation.
The measure would create a “consent-based process for siting nuclear waste facilities”, which includes state and local agreements and public hearings, according to the summary.
The senators released a draft of the bill in April, which they said received more than 2,500 public comments.
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