Nuclear safety standards may be cut: Green Paper suggests radical rethink of strategy on waste. Tom Wilkie reports

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The Independent Online
SAFETY standards for disposing of nuclear waste may be lowered as a result of a major review of Government radioactive waste policy, foreshadowed in a report published today.

The Department of the Environment yesterday published its Green Paper, Review of Radioactive Waste Management Policy, which contains a fundamental reappraisal of the Government's strategy. It represents a tacit admission that the Government's strategy is in a complete mess.

Although the department has previously maintained that all intermediate-level radioactive wastes should be buried deep underground, it is now suggesting that some could be 'reclassified' so that it could be buried in shallow trenches near the surface.

The document also reluctantly acknowledges that the nuclear industry is unlikely to start operating its deep underground waste repository by the target date of 2010, saying that 'no fixed date can be set for the completion' of the repository, planned for a site near the Sellafield reprocessing plant in Cumbria.

The department suggests that management of the nuclear waste disposal company, UK Nirex, might be taken out of the hands of the nuclear industry to 'facilitate the development of suitable disposal facilities'.

Government policy remains that nuclear waste should be put underground eventually. However, much of the document is taken up with the interim storage which will be necessary if the repository cannot be built quickly enough to take wastes which are piling up at power stations and the Sellafield reprocessing plant.

The department's economic analysis appears to accept arguments put forward by Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, that it might be cheaper to defer the construction of a final repository for 50 years or more and simply store the wastes at their point of origin.

In 1984, the Government set the industry a safety target that a waste repository should pose a risk of death through cancer to the local population of less than one in a million a year; now, the Government 'considers it inappropriate to rely on a specified risk limit or risk constraint as the criterion for determining the acceptability of a disposal facility'.

Tom Curtin, on behalf of UK Nirex, welcomed the document's reaffirmation of deep underground disposal as the ultimate route for dealing with wastes. But Patrick Green, of Friends of the Earth, pointed out that 'disposal can only be acceptable if you have a robust safety case. But our criticism of Nirex has been of the science they can produce to prove they can meet the safety targets. The momentum of scientific evidence and economic reality will force it to abandon the proposed dump at Sellafield'.

Review of Radioactive Waste Management Policy - Preliminary Conclusions. A Consultation Document; Radioactive Substances Division, Department of the Environment, Room A523, Romney House, London SW1P 3PY.