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Nuclear industry reveals its unsolved problem: waste via The Ecologist

Britain is shipping 700kg of highly-enriched uranium capable of making scores of nuclear bombs to the US, writes Gordon MacKerron. The move is a symptom of a huge problem that’s afflicting all nuclear nations – what to do with their nuclear wastes? The only real solution is deep geological disposal. But it’s politically fraught, technically challenging, very expensive – and has yet to be done.

A very unusual exchange is about to take place over the Atlantic.

The UK is sending some 700kg of highly enriched uranium to be disposed of in the US, the largest amount that has ever been moved out of the country.

In return, the US is sending other kinds of enriched uranium to Europe to help diagnose people with cancer.

The vast majority of the UK’s waste comes from its fleet of nuclear power stations. Most of it is stored at the Sellafield site in north-west England. But the material being sent to the US is a particularly high (weapons usable) grade of enriched uranium.

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The £100 billion Sellafield problem

In the absence of a deep-disposal plan, the UK has a more immediately pressing issue – what to do with Sellafield’s contaminated materials and waste from the UK’s near-70 years in the nuclear power and weapons business, much of which is housed in dilapidated facilities that are not fit for purpose.

The Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) expects it will cost some £68 billion to clean up Sellafield by stabilising and safely packaging the waste and building new stores. This will only be completed by around 2120.

This problem is at least now getting serious attention and resource – despite the climate of public austerity. Currently the country is spending over £1.5 billion a year on the site, which is one of the most hazardous in Europe.

Sellafield stores a further 140 tonnes of waste plutonium that also stems from British and some overseas nuclear power. If used in bombs this amount could obliterate humanity several times over. The NDA is now focusing on what to do about this too, after years of political inattention.

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