Highly radioactive waste from nuclear power stations could poison ground waters

A new study released today shows European leaders are being misled over the safety of underground disposal of highly dangerous nuclear waste which could poison ground waters for centuries.

The European Commission is due to publish a draft nuclear waste directive this autumn. Deep disposal has dominated the research into the management of highly radioactive nuclear waste for over 30 years and is expected to be central to the directive. However, the Commission has been misinformed of the dangers of deep disposal by its most critical advisors, the Joint Research Centre (JRC) and European Implementing Geological Disposal Technology Platform (IGD-TP). Both claim that a scientific consensus has been reached and construction should proceed [1]. However, there is evidence to suggest that this is biased and deep geological storage projects could have serious problems that have not been identified because of lack of resources and funding for independent scrutiny.

The new study, Rock Solid?, a scientific review of geological disposal of high-level radioactive waste, commissioned by Greenpeace and written by GeneWatch UK director Dr Helen Wallace [2], reveals serious flaws in the advice being given to the Commission. Despite making scientific claims, key reports produced by the advisory bodies make little or no reference to scientific studies. One rare example of a referenced claim is based solely on an unpublished note of a panel discussion (see page 10 of Rock Solid?). Neither advisor has conducted a literature review of research on deep disposal. Despite these grave flaws, the European Commission’s Research Directorate-General appears to have accepted the advice and is upbeat about the prospects of exporting deep storage around Europe and to developing countries [3].

Following her review of scientific journal papers, Dr Wallace comes to a far more sobering opinion of the viability of deep disposal. Dr Wallace says, ‘There are blanks in our understanding of deep storage; cracks that are papered over at our peril. We are talking about trying to bury thousands of tonnes of highly dangerous waste for longer than people have existed on Earth. It would be a mind-boggling engineering triumph which, if miscalculated, could release highly radioactive waste into our groundwater or seas for centuries, so far below ground that there will be nothing we can do about it.’

The most probable causes of failure identified in journals include accelerated corrosion of containers; heat and gas formation leading to pressurisation and cracking of the storage chamber; unexpected chemical reactions; geological uncertainties; future ice ages, earthquakes and human interference. The different constitution of waste from future nuclear reactors and its complicated chemistry adds to the uncertainty. Dr Wallace’s study acknowledges that computer modelling is now advanced, but not sufficient to account for the multiple factors of heat, mechanical deformation, microbes and coupled gas and water flow through fractured crystalline rocks or clay over long timescales.

It is incredible that the European Commission is being given a green light when the scientists are all clearly flashing an amber, at best. This study yet again demonstrates that there is no solution to the nuclear waste problem and we should be phasing out its largest source, nuclear power, in favour of a fully renewable energy supply by 2050. Europe would be mad to consider deep storage now, in anybody’s backyard.

[1] The 2009 Euratom-funded Vision Document of the European ‘Implementing Geological Disposal’ Technology Platform (IGD-TP) states that “a growing consensus exists” that deep disposal is the most appropriate solution to dispose of spent nuclear fuel, high-level waste and other long-lived radioactive wastes and that it is time to proceed to license the construction and operation of deep geological repositories for radioactive waste disposal. This conclusion is supported by the 2009 report of the EC’s Joint Research Centre (JRC), which states that: “our scientific understanding of the processes relevant for geological disposal has developed well enough to proceed with step-wise implementation".

 [2] Dr Wallace has a PhD in environmental modelling from Exeter University and is an expert in the role of computer modelling in policy decisions. She is a former employee of Greenpeace UK and gave expert evidence in the 1995 planning inquiry into Nirex’s proposals to construct the first stage of a nuclear waste repository near Sellafield (the proposals were rejected).  She is currently Director of the science-policy research group GeneWatch UK.

[3] The Director of Energy for Research Directorate-General stated in the foreword to the IGD-TP Vision Document: “These [geological disposal facilities] will not only be the first such facilities in Europe but also the first in the world. I am convinced that through this initiative, safe and responsible practices for the long-term management of hazardous radioactive waste can be disseminated to other Member States and even 3rd countries, thereby ensuring the greatest possible protection of all citizens and the environment both now and in the future”. (European Commission. 2009. Implementing Geological Disposal of Radioactive Waste Technology Platform: Vision Document. October 2009.)