November 26th, 2019, by Paul Brown
We are leaving our children a radioactive legacy, the lethal waste that current governments still cannot make safe.
LONDON, 26 November, 2019 − After 70 years of building and operating nuclear power plants across the world, governments are bequeathing to future generations a radioactive legacy.
They remain unable to deal with the huge quantities of highly radioactive spent fuel they produce, says a group of independent experts − and as more reactors are reaching the end of their lives, the situation is worsening fast.
That is the conclusion of the first World Nuclear Waste Report (WNWR), produced by a group which says there are ever-growing challenges in waste management and no sustainable long-term solutions. They include two British academics: the economist Professor Gordon MacKerron, of the University of Sussex, and the independent radiation biologist Dr Ian Fairlie.
“Despite many plans and declared political intentions, huge uncertainties remain, and much of the costs and the challenges will fall onto future generations,” the report says.
The waste, which can remain dangerous for more than 100,000 years, constitutes a continuous health hazard because of the routine release of radioactive gas and liquid waste into the environment. Yet it is likely to be another century before the problem is solved, the WNWR report says.
It notes: “The continued practice of storing spent nuclear fuel for long periods in pools at nuclear power plants (wet storage) constitutes a major risk to the public and to the environment.” There are now an estimated 250,000 tons of spent fuel in storage in 14 countries.
Despite its stark findings, the report makes no comment on the ethics of continuing to build nuclear stations when there is no way to get rid of the wastes they create.
The authors do not even quote the sixth report of the UK Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution from 1976, only 20 years after the dawn of the nuclear age, chaired by the physicist Sir Brian Flowers.
Beyond reasonable doubt
That said: “There should be no commitment to a large programme of nuclear fission power until it has been demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt that a method exists to ensure the safe containment of long-lived, highly radioactive waste for the indefinite future.”
Successive British governments, along with the rest of the world, ignored Flowers. 40 years on, there are massive stockpiles of radioactive waste in every nuclear nation across the planet.
However, because the problem is now so vast, this latest report concentrates on describing the issues faced in the democracies of Europe where there is a lot of official information available. Even here, governments have failed to properly estimate the true cost of dealing with the waste, and most are many decades away from finding any solutions.
Finland is the only country in the world currently building a permanent repository for its high-level waste. Many other countries have tried and failed, either because the geology proved unsuitable or because of objections from those affected.