The British nuclear industry currently finds itself in the teeth of a moral dilemma. All choices are poor which goes to show – again - how nuclear energy is, in itself, a poor choice.
A report by the UK’s Environment Agency, as covered by The Independent newspaper, says ‘thousands of containers of lethal nuclear waste are likely to fail before being safely sealed away underground’.
This is the first half of the dilemma. Can nuclear waste be ‘safely sealed away underground’? That seems rather an optimistic statement from The Independent’s Environment Editor. At the time of writing, nobody has done it successfully. The proof that it can be done successfully won’t be available until the nuclear waste stored in underground storage facilities is deemed safe. With the likes of Iodine-129, a by product of nuclear energy, having a half life of 16 million years, that won’t be for a long time.
Not only that but building underground storage facilities is an immensely expensive and time-consuming enterprise. Look at the American’s experience with building the Yucca Mountain facility, the country’s first nuclear dump in Nevada. It’s 20 years behind schedule and a massive $32 billion over budget.
The second half of the dilemma is that the nuclear waste containers stored on the surface at Sellafield and elsewhere are corroding now built, as they are, from substandard materials. Computer modelling shows that fully 40 per cent of the tanks are at risk. The fear is that they will fail before the underground storage facility is ready and sealed.
According to the Independent:
On present plans it is assumed they will remain there for up to another 150 years before being placed in a repository underground. It will take another 50 years to fill the repository, which will then remain open for another 300 years, while the waste is monitored, before being sealed up and buried.
This is in accord with the thinking of the likes of K.S. Schrader-Frechette who, in her book Burying Uncertainty, she advocates postponing ‘the question of geological disposal for at least a century and use monitored, retrievable, above-ground storage of the waste until then. In the case of Sellafield, hovever, the storage is all those things - monitored, retrievable, and above-ground – but that doesn’t help the fact that time is running out if a catastrophic leak is to be prevented.
So, we have storage tanks that could leak highly dangerous waste while standing in the open air and yet we lack the expertise and time to build adequate underground storage facilities. That’s the dilemma. What to do?
The county council in Cumbria where Sellafield is sited is beginning consultations on whether to allow ‘a facility for the deep geological disposal of higher level radioactive wastes’ in the county. Will it be built in time? Will it work? Will it be safe? Is it the right decision? Thanks to nuclear energy, all the choices in this situation are poor ones. Toss a coin. Roll the dice.