During the last search process for a burial site for the UK’s nuclear waste, which ended in January 2013, the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) offered repeated assurances that only the UK’s nuclear waste would be buried in a UK Geological Disposal Facility (GDF). Many questioned at the time whether the NDA could be trusted to keep its word, and it became apparent in mid-2012 that it could not be trusted. The NDA had accepted 4 tonnes of plutonium from Germany in a ‘commercially advantageous arrangement’ according to Charles Hendry, the UK’s Energy Minister at the time. In other words the NDA had been paid to take ownership of the German plutonium.
A half-hearted attempt was made to claim that there was no breach of trust, since plutonium did not form part of the UK’s nuclear waste inventory, which while technically correct at the time, it was widely understood that plutonium was expected to be reclassified as waste at a later stage. So while the NDA claim was true in a literal sense, it was also entirely disingenuous. It was clear at the time that the NDA were embarrassed by this, particularly as they were about to ask Copeland, Allerdale and Cumbria to vote to continue the search process for a GDF site. That process ended in January 2013 when Cumbria County Council vetoed the decisions of the two borough councils which had voted to proceed.
While there have been a few smaller transactions of this type, it now appears that the NDA is offering to take ownership of a much larger quantity – 19 tonnes (21 US tons) of plutonium from Japan, in exchange for a substantial payment. The UK and Sellafield where it is stored will then be faced with the problem of what to do with it. It is almost inevitable that it will be reclassified as waste at some point, but it generates too much heat to begin to be buried until the year 2136 according to the NDA.
The UK’s search for a GDF site has failed on three occasions, with a lack of public trust being one of the key reasons for the failures. With this latest move by the NDA, public trust is likely to be further diminished. Any claim that a UK GDF is for UK nuclear waste is clearly not to be trusted.