Waste warning over plans to expand UK's nuclear power

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No decision about building new nuclear power stations in Britain should be taken until a solution to the problem of nuclear waste has been outlined, a committee of scientists has told the Government.

No decision about building new nuclear power stations in Britain should be taken until a solution to the problem of nuclear waste has been outlined, a committee of scientists has told the Government.

Any early move to go ahead with new atomic power plants - as the Government is believed to be considering - would compromise public consultations going on at the moment to address the waste issue, they say.

Their intervention is a complicating factor in the decision about whether Britain should "go nuclear" once more, as part of its programme to cut back on carbon dioxide emissions from conventional coal and gas-fired power stations in the fight against climate change.

Three weeks ago, The Independent reported that Tony Blair was preparing to do just that, and this week the Government's chief scientific adviser, Sir David King, said that in the bid to combat global warming one more generation of nuclear power stations "may be necessary".

But now the waste question has erupted into the policy process with a vengeance. The scientists, mostly with a nuclear background, form a group set up by the Government 18 months ago - CORWM, the Committee on Radioactive Waste Management - to consider how the waste legacy of 50 years of nuclear power can best be dealt with. That is regarded as long overdue. Successive governments, Conservative and Labour, have failed to come up with any long-term solution for disposal of the mini-mountain of spent nuclear fuel and other irradiated products produced by Britain's nuclear industry since the first atomic power station, at Calder Hall in Cumbria - the Sellafield site - began operating in 1956.

The radioactive waste pile now totals 470,000 cubic metres - enough to fill the Royal Albert Hall five times over.

Mostly it is being stored on site at nuclear plants, but this is merely an interim solution. CORWM was set up to look at options for long-term disposal, and recommend a way forward to the Government. The recommendation is due in July 2006.

After a public and scientific consultation exercise, which included public meetings around the country, last month CORWM made its interim recommendations. The committee ruled out a number of more extreme options for nuclear waste disposal that have been (quite seriously) put forward, including firing it into space or burying it beneath the Antarctic ice sheet. Instead, they listed four main options, ranging from deep geological disposal - putting the waste in rocks deep underground - to local shallow disposal for short-lived wastes.

The committee is now setting out on another round of public consultations and assessments of this shortlist, before its final decision in July next year. It is that process, the members believe, which will be compromised if the Government takes any decision to go ahead with "nuclear new build", as it is known, in the meantime.

They think that the co-operation of environmentalists in the process, for example, will be withdrawn if Green activists think that all they are doing is removing a hurdle - ie, the waste problem itself - for a new generation of nuclear power.

The committee chairman, Professor Gordon MacKerron, director of the Science Policy Research Unit at the University of Sussex, has written to the Government. "We have told the Government that if there were a decision on nuclear new build, it would complicate our process, and some stakeholders might not take part," he said yesterday. "It might mean that the level of overall public confidence in our process might be lacking."

Another committee member, Pete Wilson, a former director of Friends of the Earth, said: "We want to solve the problem and draw a line under it, but if this is only so we can create more waste and more problems for future generations, people will feel they do not want to take part."

Professor MacKerron said the committee did not take a view on whether or not there should be more nuclear plants.

The four key options

By Michael McCarthy and Sophie Borland

* Four definite choices are on the table to deal with the substantial pile of radioactive waste that Britain's nuclear industry has produced, and is still producing.

The problem is now urgent because of the possibility of a new generation of nuclear power stations.

Proposals put forward by the Committee on Radioactive Waste Management are: deep disposal, phased deep disposal, shallow burial and interim storage. It will give its final report after a year of consultations.

In deep disposal, waste is permanently placed in a repository between 300 metres and 2km underground, in an area where rocks act as the protective chamber. This option is the most expensive, likely to cost up to £12bn.

Phased deep disposal is the same process as deep disposal, except the waste will be retrievable.

Shallow burial is for waste with short-lived radioactivity buried just below the surface.

Interim storage is a temporary solution. Waste could be stored above the ground or just below the surface - but it must be out of the biosphere, the envelope around the world in which life occurs.

The committee is not addressing the question of disposal sites, which will be an even thornier problem once the Government comes to confront it. But it has given an estimate of how much waste a new generation of power stations might produce. This is calculated at about 47,000 cubic metres, or half an Albert Hall.