SECRECY and political interference ensured that the UK's plans for disposing of its nuclear waste ended in failure. That is the verdict of a soul-searching report by Nirex, the government agency reponsible. It was published last week in response to a request under the Freedom of Information Act made by New Scientist and others.
"We made a tremendous number of mistakes," confesses Chris Murray, the managing director of Nirex. "We were told in no uncertain terms that we were extremely arrogant, we were working too fast and we weren't listening to people who had an interest."
Radioactive waste remains dangerous for tens of thousands of years. Most countries concluded long ago that disposal deep underground in stable geological formations is the best option. The US already operates a waste isolation pilot plant in salt mines 650 metres beneath the Chihuahuan Desert near Carlsbad, New Mexico. Deep underground repositories are also under investigation in Finland, Sweden, Switzerland, Belgium and France.
When the UK first investigated deep disposal for nuclear waste in the late 1980s, geologists identified 30 per cent of the land mass as being potentially suitable, including small islands, shoreline sediments, sedimentary rocks and basement rocks. In secret, Nirex then identified 537 possible sites and whittled them down to a shortlist of 12.
Heavily populated areas were ruled out at an early stage. Then sites were restricted to those owned by the Ministry of Defence, other government departments or the nuclear industry. Northern Ireland was entirely omitted "because of the political situation", Nirex says. Many potential sites in Wales were also excluded because "personal threats were received by staff" in previous site-selection exercises.
The 12 sites on the final shortlist included two small, uninhabited islands in the Outer Hebrides, a low-lying island on the Essex coast only 8 kilometres from Southend-on-Sea, and two sites under the sea (see map below). The only two locations chosen for test bores were at nuclear plants: Dounreay in Caithness and Sellafield in Cumbria.
The Nirex report makes clear that these sites were selected because they had "a measure of local support for nuclear activities". The final choice was basement rock under a farm near Sellafield, but in 1997 the science behind this decision was rejected as flawed by the government and the programme was abandoned (New Scientist, 22 March 1997, p 13).
Nirex accepts there was "confusion" over the selection of the Sellafield site. Throughout the process, Nirex concludes, "there were significant political constraints that were not communicated outside the participants".
The problem of what to do with the 92,000 cubic metres of nuclear waste in the UK remains unsolved. Some of the previously shortlisted sites could be reconsidered for deep disposal. "It is possible that some of the areas they identified could appear again in the future," says Phil Richardson, a nuclear waste specialist with Enviros Consulting, "but the local communities must be involved this time."