Nuclear dumps to run out of space by 2002, says report

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The Independent Online
Radioactive waste from Britain's nuclear weapons programme is building up and may soon have nowhere to go, according to painstaking research to be given to the House of Lords this week. Steve Boggan looks at the evidence.

Britain's Atomic Weapons Establishment at Aldermaston will run out of space to store radioactive by-products from the Trident nuclear programme by 2002.

That is the disturbing conclusion of an investigation conducted by Labour MP Alan Simpson and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament which found Britain's military waste management in a "chaotic" state. In a report to be given to the House of Lords Science and Technology select committee, they paint a picture of decay and potential danger to the public because of the absence of a nuclear waste disposal strategy following the scrapping of plans for the Nirex deep-waste repository at Sellafield in Cumbria.

Aldermaston has been producing nuclear weapons for almost 40 years, resulting in the storage on-site of contaminated equipment ranging from old glove boxes, tools and filters to sludge containing uranium and plutonium from liquid treatment facilities.

In the mid-Eighties, the Government recognised the problems caused by the production of about 100 tonnes of intermediate level nuclear waste each year and decided to build three new facilities designed to deal with it - a liquid waste treatment plant called A91, a solid waste treatment facility and a "size reduction" facility to make storage simpler.

However, more than 10 years on, only A91 and a sludge solidification facility have been built, and they are not yet operational. According to figures obtained by CND and Mr Simpson, MP for Nottingham South, Aldermaston had capacity for 4,000 cubic metres of waste but has only 500 to 1,000 cubic metres left.

CND's report, compiled by William Peden, its Parliamentary officer, says: "Current projections show that the ... storage space left at Aldermaston will be filled sometime between 1999 and 2002 - at the latest." And it quotes a confidential National Audit Office report produced in 1986 as saying Aldermaston would run out of storage space by the year 2000.

"... the military have a variety of ad hoc solutions to contain their ever- increasing nuclear waste stockpiles," the CND report says. "Some represent best practice currently available, others represent chaos."

It continues: "At Aldermaston, almost 20 years of mismanagement, dithering and delay has led to essential facilities having to continue operating long past the date they should have been replaced, nuclear waste being stored in any available building and no clear idea of the true radiological content of much of the nuclear waste currently in storage."

Mr Peden points to a Health and Safety Executive review of Aldermaston in 1994 which found that: "Most of the facilities were not designed with decommissioning in mind. Many of the activities to remove redundant plant and equipment will need to be carried out hands-on, introducing the risk of relatively high doses to workers."

Mr Peden said: "At some point, the Government is going to have to weigh up the dangers posed by the production of nuclear weapons that we don't need against the threat to the local community and to workers who come from that community." Mr Simpson said he would be calling on the Government to suspend production of further weapons until proper waste management systems were in place.

"We have a very serious problem and if we do not stop the production process until we have found a solution, then we will go from having a problem to having a crisis," he said. "If we produce waste faster than we can deal with it, then the situation is going to get very serious indeed. Dennis Healey once said: `When you're in a hole, stop digging.' That is a maxim we would do well to follow at the moment."

Last year, during inquiries into waste management at Aldermaston, The Independent was assured by the Ministry of Defence that there was plenty of room left for the storage of waste and that none of Aldermaston's disposal plans had relied upon the construction of the Nirex waste repository.

In fact, the NAO report does refer to storage plans being reliant upon the development of such a repository. Aerial photographs of Aldermaston, seen by The Independent, show no room for further development of the site except for several sports pitches, the destruction of which would cast the Atomic Weapons Establishment in an increasingly desperate light.