Ministers warned of huge rise in nuclear waste

Lethal radioactivity could rise five-fold, warn experts

Industry denies massaging statistics

David Adam, environment correspondent, The Guardian, January 9 2006

A new generation of nuclear power stations would increase five-fold the amount of a lethal and long-lasting form of highly radioactive nuclear waste stored in the UK, official figures show.

The analysis, by a government-sponsored committee of experts, reveals the scale of the legacy to future generations by building nuclear plants. It comes as the nuclear industry and supporters are pressing ministers to approve reactors in the face of uncertainty over gas supplies.

The figures reveal that spent uranium fuel rods from new power stations would almost triple radioactivity in the current inventory of UK nuclear waste. They contrast with claims that new reactors would create far less waste than predecessors.

BNFL says a new generation of plants would add only 10% to the volume of waste. Experts say this is misleading because the majority of existing waste is made up of bulky, less hazardous material.

Chris Murray, chief executive of nuclear waste management body Nirex, said: "The volume is not the whole story. We need to be very exact about what type of waste new reactors would actually produce and how it needs to be dealt with."

In 2003 the Commons select committee on science and technology said BNFL's argument that new reactors would only produce 10% more waste meant that "the waste issue cannot be used as an argument against further nuclear build".

Norman Baker, Liberal Democrat environment spokesman, said: "It is typical of the nuclear industry that, not only have they got the brass neck to put something forward which is so unsustainable, but they also try to fiddle the figures to cover up what they're doing."

The figures have been prepared by Corwm, the committee on radioactive waste management. They use yet-to-be published government accounts of the amount of nuclear waste in the UK. They assume Britain will build 10 new reactors and will not reprocess the spent fuel, which is hazardous and difficult to handle because it stays radioactive for thousands of years and generates so much heat it must be stored for several decades before it can be dealt with. Corwm says this would produce an extra 31,900 cubic metres of spent fuel, on top of the 8,150 cubic metres currently stored.

A Nuclear Industry Association spokesman said: "We're not fiddling the figures. It's just a different way of measuring it."

A massive rise in spent fuel would not present a significant technical challenge because it was a relatively well understood waste, Prof MacKerron said. But it could significantly increase the size of a permanent disposal site. Corwm is weighing up several long-term disposal options. A decision is expected this summer.

He said: "The footprint of any facility you might want would have to be increased, by more than 10% but nothing like as much as 2-3 times. It's very difficult to know at the moment where between those extremes it lies."

The nuclear industry has suggested spent fuel from new reactors could be stored on site at power stations for at least a century.

Jean McSorley, of Greenpeace, said: "There's barely a policy in the UK for handling the spent fuel we've already got. The nuclear decommissioning authority is struggling with the amounts from current reactors. How the UK can cope with a massive increase has not been answered by anyone."

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