After 40 years, they're getting rid of our nuclear leftovers

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The Independent Online

In the Beatles song "A Day in the Life", John Lennon sang: "Now they know how many holes it takes to fill the Albert Hall" (he reckoned 4,000). But had he asked today how many times London's Royal Albert Hall could be filled with the UK's nuclear waste, the answer, apparently, would be five.

In the Beatles song "A Day in the Life", John Lennon sang: "Now they know how many holes it takes to fill the Albert Hall" (he reckoned 4,000). But had he asked today how many times London's Royal Albert Hall could be filled with the UK's nuclear waste, the answer, apparently, would be five.

There are around 470,000 cubic metres of current and future nuclear waste requiring storage space in more than 30 sites around the UK. The average Briton lives 26 miles from one of these. And as from last Friday, a government body known as the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority has become responsible for clearing up most of this highly radioactive mess (estimated cost: £48bn over several decades).

Alongside the NDA works another newish body, CoRWM (the Committee on Radioactive Waste Management), whose job it is to recommend what to do with all the waste. In keeping with the accident-prone traditions of Britain's 50-year-old nuclear industry, neither organisation has got off to a good start.

First, the NDA. It will dole out the contracts to dismantle and make safe those nuclear sites, such as Sellafield, operated by the state-owned nuclear group BNFL and a civil agency, the UK Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA). But its future is already in doubt. The European Commission has blocked the transfer of BNFL's assets and liabilities to the NDA. These assets, which include BNFL's Magnox generators, were supposed to finance the estimated £2bn worth of decommissioning contracts the NDA will award each year.

Brussels is investigating whether the transfer infringes rules on state aid and will make a decision in a year's time. The NDA's chairman, Sir Anthony Cleaver, admits there is no plan B if the EC rules against the transfer. "The expectation is that there will not be a problem," he insists.

The uncertainty over the NDA's future is not stopping companies such as Amec in the UK and Fluor in the US salivating at the prospect of securing some of the highly lucrative decommissioning work. Initially, BNFL and the UKAEA will continue to carry out the decommissioning themselves. But from 2008, half of this work must be put out to competitive tender. The first contracts could be granted later this year.

It's not surprising that there is so much interest: companies could potentially earn a profit margin of up to 20 per cent of the actual cost of the decommissioning.

In many ways, CoRWM has a thankless task. Its remit is to carry out a two-and-a-half-year public consultation. Next summer it is due to recommend to the Government its preferred option for the long-term storage of nuclear waste (including highly radioactive spent fuel, and lower-level waste such as the building material from decommissioned reactors). Previous governments have successfully dodged the issue for decades. Critics cite CoRWM as another time-wasting exercise.

Before Christmas, the House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology criticised CoRWM for its deliberately non-scientific approach, which involves asking lay members of the public at open meetings for their views on the different disposal options. The suggested solutions included blasting nuclear waste into space on a rocket. Some of these meetings have been attended by as few as 10 people, which hardly makes them representative.

The criticism has not just come from outside the 13-strong committee. One member has been suspended for condemning its lack of scientific rigour and another has resigned in protest. In response, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, which established CoRWM, last month appointed its chief scientific adviser, Professor Howard Dalton, together with its own panel, to assist the committee.

CoRWM's chairman, Gordon MacKerron, argues that the public consultations are worthwhile. "We wanted to go back to basics to ask what options were available," he says. "Another two-and-a-half years isn't going to make much difference when nothing has been done for the past 40 years on this issue."

But the longer a decision on a permanent solution is delayed, the more expensive the NDA's work (funded, ultimately, by the taxpayer) becomes. In the interim, it must store the waste created by decommissioning.

Nuclear consultant John Large explains: "One vital aspect of the NDA is that it is totally dependent on CoRWM. But CoRWM is acting like a bunch of naive amateurs."

Next week, CoRWM begins the next phase of public consultation. But music lovers should rest easy: putting nuclear waste in the Royal Albert Hall is one option, at least, that won't be under discussion.

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