Cumbria Trust was interested to learn that the NDA has just appointed Professor Bruce Yardley as their Chief Geologist for Radioactive Waste Management. For years the NDA and DECC has sought to downplay the importance of geology in the burial of nuclear waste, by describing it as just one of a number of factors which has to be considered. The reason for this approach appeared to be the irrational desire to select West Cumbria as the site for burying the UK’s nuclear waste, despite it having some of the least suitable and therefore least safe geology for that purpose. No other civilised country would consider burying nuclear waste in an area of fractured and faulted geology with fast underground water flow driven by the mountains above. So in this respect, Cumbria Trust welcomes the NDA’s overdue acceptance of the importance of geology.
However, the selection of Professor Yardley is not without controversy. To his credit, Professor Yardley has publicly acknowledged that West Cumbria’s geology is less suitable than large areas of flat-lying Eastern England, but he views the current condition of the Sellafield site as so precarious and vulnerable to terrorist attack, that it would be better to bury the waste almost anywhere than leave it for longer on the surface. This logic has been used to suggest that the delay required to conduct a proper national geological survey, and seeking volunteers from an area with suitable geology, is outweighed by the risk of leaving the waste on the surface for an extra 10-15 years.
Perhaps Professor Yardley is unaware that the most dangerous elements of the waste at Sellafield generate too much heat to commence burial within 60 years, according to his new employer, the NDA. High Level Waste and Spent Fuel are due to begin burial in 2075, and some of the highest risk parts of the waste inventory, plutonium and uranium are due to begin burial in 2136 according to the NDA
Conducting a national geological survey and seeking volunteers from geologically prospective areas could delay the completion of a repository from the current target of 2040, until perhaps 2050-55. This could delay the emplacement of some Low and Intermediate Level Waste by 10-15 years. However it would have no effect at all on the emplacement of any of the most dangerous High Level Wastes which seem to concern Professor Yardley. The GDF would still be complete with 20-25 years to spare for that purpose, and more than 80 years before plutonium and uranium emplacement can begin.
This appears to be a fundamental flaw in Professor Yardley’s argument. Critically, a national geological survey would allow a repository to be constructed in a geologically suitable area. This is essential to protect future generations from the risk of radioactive contamination from waste, some of which remains dangerous for hundreds of thousands of years. To press ahead with a repository in West Cumbria to save 10-15 years is plainly illogical, in that it does nothing to reduce the risk from the most dangerous parts of the waste inventory at Sellafield.
Professor Yardley acknowledged during a meeting with local MPs in January 2013 that given the choice, we should choose an area of flat-lying clay geology, none of which are found in Cumbria.
The nuclear new-build programme which is being proposed by DECC would increase this nuclear waste inventory by a large multiple in terms of radioactivity. Some of the most dangerous parts of this new-build waste would be unsuitable for deep burial until the 23rd century. If this is a sincerely held belief rather than telling the NDA what they want to hear, Professor Yardley’s determination to remove the nuclear waste from the surface to reduce the intolerable risk posed by Sellafield, would make him an opponent of new-build nuclear. His appointment at the (covertly) pro new-build NDA suggests otherwise.
Some months ago, Professor David Smythe predicted that Professor Yardley would be invited to sit on a government committee or two after he started saying a few things that the NDA wanted to hear, including a criticism of Professors Smythe and Haszeldine. He has been proven right.
A response to Professor Yardley from Professors Smythe and Haszeldine can be found here