As the UK Government plans yet another attempt to deliver a deep underground radioactive waste repository, NFLA urges them and the regulators to look carefully at a Swedish court ruling rejecting a repository licence around real safety concerns
The Nuclear Free Local Authorities (NFLA) has been made aware that the UK Government imminently plans its latest attempt, which is the sixth attempt in the past 42 years (1), to start a process to find a willing community to host a deep underground radioactive waste repository. (2) This process now could be, and should be, completely reconsidered after a Swedish court ruling rejecting a licence application on the waste capsules for a similar development, after many years of planning.
For over 4 decades, several UK bodies – UKAEA, Nirex, RWMD and now Radioactive Waste Management Ltd (RWM) – have been established by the UK Government to deliver a deep underground radioactive waste repository, often referred to in the industry as a geological disposal facility (GDF). Three consultations are expected to be issued imminently – one on the definition of the community that would decide on such a repository and how engaging with the public would take place, a second on a National Policy Statement for a deep waste repository, and the third the publication by RWM of a national geological screening of England, Wales and Northern Ireland (Scotland is pursuing a separate policy of ‘near site, near surface’ storage of its highly active radioactive waste).
Throughout its 38 years of operation, NFLA has been heavily engaged in this debate. It remains sceptical that a deep underground repository is the most environmentally sound solution for managing the UK’s huge burden of radioactive waste. It notes that the Nuclear Waste Advisory Associates have outlined over 100 key technical and scientific concerns around such developments, and NFLA has seen no resolution to these issues from the government or RWM. (3)
Yesterday, the Swedish Land and Environmental Court gave its opinion to the government on whether to allow the Swedish equivalent of RWM, SKB, to develop a final deep underground repository for spent nuclear fuel in Forsmark, Sweden. The court said it could not recommend the Government to approve of the application unless the industry can provide additional data proving that the capsules that would contain the spent nuclear fuels would not leak. (4)
Sweden and Finland are regularly put forward by RWM and the UK Government as the fore-runners of the ‘international consensus’ on deep waste repositories. This court decision is therefore a pivotal ruling that needs to be considered across all countries with nuclear power programmes, including the UK. Unlike in the UK, the Swedish Government has been willing to genuinely hear all sides of the argument on this development, and has provided funding for a non-governmental organisation (NGO), MKB, to raise the concerns of those uncomfortable with the concept of deep waste repositories. The Court has found MKB’s arguments more compelling, despite the Swedish nuclear regulator previously approving the capsule design.
As independent nuclear consultant Dr David Lowry comments:
“This is both an amazing decision and a very important decision. The Swedish Environmental Court has concluded that the scientific argument and evidence presented by an umbrella group (Gothenburg -based MKG) representing a wide range of environmental organisations had more credibility than the evidence of the Swedish nuclear regulator and the Swedish Nuclear Fuel and Waste company (SKB). The UK nuclear waste disposal / storage implementer, the Government-owned RWML, meanwhile is intent on obtaining under licence the SKB containment technology called KBS3, rejected as unacceptable by the Environmental court in the country of its development! Prudence might expect a ministerial re-think. The pronouncement in Stockholm this morning will reverberate across Europe sending shock waves into the nuclear waste establishment; as it should.” (5)
NFLA call on the UK Government and RWM to carefully consider the Swedish ruling before they commence any new round of consultation trying again to find a willing community to host a deep underground repository. If the global leader of such technology has been found wanting by the Swedish courts, then it is a salutary lesson that needs to be learned. Previous UK policy processes in this area have been nowhere near as thorough as the Swedish process. The decision by the courts also shows how essential it is for government to receive independent advice through a NGO process like occurs with MKG, instead of always listening to the well-funded nuclear industry view alone.
NFLA Vice-Chair Councillor David Blackburn said:
“The decision of the Swedish court to reject the safety case of the capsules that would be placed in a deep underground radioactive waste repository should provoke a sea change in thinking around the global nuclear industry and all governments that support such developments. It is testament that, with adequate funding for the sceptical view on nuclear power and radioactive waste management the careful research and work of MKB has persuaded the Swedish court to reject the nuclear industry, despite full approval by its regulator. The UK Government, RWM and the Office for Nuclear Regulation need to forensically consider the ruling of the Swedish court and halt any new UK process until lessons from it are fully learnt. They should also seriously support the work of independent critics of UK nuclear policy to find solutions that have wider public acceptability and reconsider the long-term concerns around developments that place highly radioactive waste deep underground for hundreds of thousands of years. We must rethink this policy again.”