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60 billion pounds required to destroy UK’s nuclear waste

LONDON: The cost of cleaning up the nuclear waste generated over the last 50 years in the U.K. will be of the order of 60 billion pounds, and it may take at least about 75 years to complete the task. The Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, which has been assigned the task, has come out with a document in this regard.

The NDA, established in April after the various nuclear bodies in the country were reorganised, has initiated a three-month consultation on how the 20 aging nuclear sites in the country could be closed safely.

High on the priority list of the NDA is the Sellafield nuclear complex in Cumbria, says Sir Anthony Cleaver, chairman of the NDA, who reiterates that reducing the risks posed by old storage facilities at the nuclear complexes is an expensive affair. He said NDA would also look at decommissioning the 11 Magnox power stations built in the 1960s and 1970s. Only four of these stations are now operational.

The government had earmarked an amount of 48 billion pounds for the task, which is now being raised to 56 billion pounds. Sir Anthony warns this is bound to go up as several new issues have cropped up — like destroying 100 tonnes of plutonium and thousands of tonnes of uranium stored at Sellafield, if they are to be classified as waste. The cost could then go up by 5 billion to 10 billion pounds.

The radio-active waste is now being guarded by armed men. The government is pondering whether to replace the stations with new plants. It has recently set up a panel under environment secretary
Margaret Beckett to study the climate change and its report may be using in determining whether new plants are indeed feasible.

Critics of nuclear energy feel the enhanced figures indeed prove nuclear energy is not that cost-effective. Said Tony Juniper, executive director of Friends of the Earth: “Nuclear power is an
expensive liability with a long track record of huge cost overruns.”

Member of Parliament and energy spokesman for the Liberal Democrats Andre Stunell said this is the first “dose of official realism there has been over the fantastic costs of nuclear industry. It blows away the argument for repeating the mistake of relying on nuclear power as the way ahead to tackle climate change.”

Currently, nearly one-fifth of Britain’s power needs are met through nuclear energy.

The NDA said the time required for decommissioning the Magnox stations would be around 25 years, against the earlier plan to make them safe in a period of 10 to 15 years and then to leave them for 60 or 70 years, before returning to finish the job. The clean-up of the huge Sellafield site would take 75 years and cost 31.5 billion pounds, rather than over a century as was originally envisaged.

Sir Anthony is against having a large gap between starting and completing the decommissioning process as it would mean leaving the unfinished work to future generations. “First of all, you obviously don’t have that long period where you have the problem of security and safety in the storage of that material on the site. A major advantage in addition is the impact on employment. The current plan assumes after the initial period the level of employment on those sites goes
down almost to zero, then suddenly 60 years later you have to re-emerge with the appropriate skills to finish the job.”

The NDA intends to invite bids next year to begin the decommissioning process. It is planning a new low-level waste depository at Dounreay and finding an alternative site for the dumping at Drigg, in Cumbria, where there is a question of rising sea level.

The NDA has to handle a thorny issue regarding the crippled thermal oxide reprocessing plant at Sellafield. A leak has put the plant out of action in May and there is no permission to continue the work there. The plant had been reprocessing spent fuel from utilities in Japan and European countries into plutonium and uranium and since there is a question of international relations, the government is not expected have the agency a complete say in the matter. The government is subsidising the plant with 200 million pounds in cash every year.

NDA, after proper study of the plant said in its document that the plant is not capable of handling thousands of tonnes of spent fuel even from Britain’s plants. It is assessing how best it can handle the situation. The fuel is now taken to Sellafield in rail flasks and kept in giant cooling ponds before reprocessing.

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