Radioactive Waste Disposal in the UK – the start of a new screening process.

Today I attended a meeting that marked the start of a long and complicated process – the initial geological screening for a location to dispose of the UK’s radioactive waste. Some of you may remember that this is a process that has already started once, back in 2006, but which ground to a halt last year, when the only remaining council considering volunteering, West Cumbria, pulled out of the process. Because of this, the government has decided to start the recruiting process all over again – in an attempt to improve how the site is selected. As a result a new White Paper outlining the Nuclear Decommissioning Agency’s (NDA) plans was published in July.

It states:
UK Government has published a renewed process for siting a Geological Disposal Facility. Implementing Geological Disposal outlines an approach based on working with interested communities, beginning with two years of actions overseen by Government and intended to address issues that the public and stakeholders have told us are important to them. The UK Government remains committed to geological disposal as the right policy for the long-term, safe and secure management of higher activity radioactive waste.

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Today’s meeting was held at the Geological Society in London and was proposed as the first step in establishing a dialogue with different stakeholders that would assist in creating guidelines for areas considering volunteering to be assessed about their suitability to house a deep geological storage facility (so basically it was asking people ‘who should be involved in the discussion to set up the plan to invite the public to volunteer to take part’ – it’s a REALLY early stage). It was organised by the Radioactive Waste Management (RWM) section of the NDA and featured speakers from across industry, academia and government.

During the meeting it became increasingly clear that far from being a straightforward process, this was a very complex set of stages which could be (and were) interpreted differently. Part of this is due to the complicated nature of the material we are dealing with – radioactive waste. So before I dive into the meeting, here is a quick look at radioactive waste.

Now when it comes to radioactivity, I have a bit more familiarity than many people, and interestingly it’s not because I am a geologist. Firstly, I grew up in and now live again in Devon, an area known far and wide for it’s granite. Now granite (like many igneous rocks – ok a little bit of geologist escaped there, but you don’t need to be a geo to know this) is a radioactive rock and one of the forms of radioactivity released is a gas called radon. In Devon, most people have at least heard of radon, and some people have radon detecters. The closer you live to the moors the more likely you are to have had your house tested for radon. In fact, there was a toilet in Chagford (central Devon) that became famous as the most radioactive loo in the world due to the amount of radon being so high, that if you were in there for an hour you would get more than the recommended annual national level of radon!!

The second reason that I am familiar with radiation is because I live in Plymouth and Plymouth houses the Trident submarines. The Tridents are the UK’s nuclear deterrent subs, each loaded with a nuclear weapon. Every week the dockyard tests it’s contamination alarms – sirens that echo the days of the blitz ring out across Plymouth (waking up the lazy students) – it’s a very audible reminder that a few miles away from the city centre is a fairly large concentration of high level nuclear material.

As you can see the Naval Base (on the river) isn't far from the city.

As you can see the Naval Base (on the river) isn’t far from the city (image from Wikipedia).

But what if you don’t live in a granite rich (radioactive) area or near one of the dockyards that services the nuclear submarines? Have you ever come into contact with radioactive material? Well leaving background radiation from the planet and the sun aside the answer is probably yes. In fact you have probably had a hand in creating some of your own radioactive waste. How you may ask? Well when I was told this I couldn’t believe I hadn’t realised it. A large proportion of our radioactive waste comes from……. medical facilities. Yep. Ever had an x-ray? Even a dental x-ray counts. And that is only one of the myriad ways that we use radioactive materials. And that’s not even thinking about some of the more intensive therapies – radio-therapy for example? So radioactivity isn’t unfamiliar, well, kind of, but radioactive waste and what we do with it – certainly the concept of burying it – is. Most of us (myself included) have never seen radioactive waste beyond the glowing green gunk housed in lurid yellow containers (probably leaking) as depicted in popular media from the Simpsons to Spiderman. And with that in mind, having radioactive waste anywhere nearby (with the possible addendum that you might get superpowers from it) is pretty terrifying!!

Radioactive materials in 'The Simpsons' usually glow green.

Radioactive materials in ‘The Simpsons’ usually glow green (image is from TheBrainCage with a great article about the colours of radioactive materials).

But as we may have thought that nuclear materials are restricted to dirty bombs and power stations, nuclear waste has been similarly misrepresented in the media. Although some radioactive rocks are bright yellow, a glowing rock doesn’t mean it’s radioactive. And though radioactive waste can be stored in cannisters, I can’t find any examples of it being a thick sludgy material. In fact the really radioactive waste we produce as a society often looks like this:

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Image from the Guardian website

The really radioactive stuff may be the most dangerous, but it also takes up the smallest proportion of radioactive waste in the UK. But what do the different types of radioactive waste mean? Well, here is a quick summary. There are three main types of radioactive waste, and they are divided by their intensity. These three types are high-level, mid-level and low-level and they are categorised in the following way (description provided by Richard Shaw from the BGS, also available here).

Low-level waste (LLW) comes from hospitals and industry, as well as from nuclear fuel. It includes paper, rags, tools and clothing, which contain small amounts of mostly short-lived radioactivity. It does not require shielding during handling and transport, and is suitable for shallow land burial. To reduce its volume, it is often compacted before disposal. 82.67 % of the volume of waste produced in the UK is low-level but it accounts for 0.0003% of the radioactivity of all radioactive waste.

Intermediate-level waste (ILW) contains higher amounts of radioactivity and some requires shielding like protective clothing between stored waste and humans. It typically includes chemical mixes and metal fuel cladding, as well as contaminated materials from reactor decommissioning. Smaller items and non-solids may be solidified into vitreous waste (like glass). In the UK it makes up 17.26% of the volume and has 5.8% of the radioactivity of all radioactive waste.

High-level waste (HLW) is generated from the ‘burning’ of uranium fuel in a nuclear reactor, is the most radioactive waste produced and can be long or short lived. HLW contains products generated in the reactor core. It is highly radioactive and hot, so requires cooling and shielding. HLW accounts for over 94.2% of the total radioactivity produced industrially, but only approximately 0.07% of the volume of radioactive waste produced in the UK.

So we have this waste, that doesn’t look like we thought is would and comes from places we hadn’t expected, so why are we only hearing about it now? Because at the moment we are storing our waste on the surface, in secure buildings. One of the things raised in today’s meeting was the idea of keeping the radwaste ‘safe’ but this plays into my questions about why are we thinking about radwaste now – ‘safe’ from what? Are we worried about keeping ourselves safe from the radiation, or the radwaste safe from us? It seems to be a mix of the two. Firstly, despite our proximity to a myriad of sources of low level background radiation, from the sun, to the rocks to your friendly neighbourhood x-ray technician, radiation in high doses, for prolonged periods of time is dangerous. It impacts not only us and our health, but the environment too. As such we protect ourselves from it. But lets be honest, all those movie stories with runaway trains that just happen to be strapped with a dirty bomb don’t come from pure fantasy. There are utter lunatics in the world who think it’s a good idea to create a weapon from something so devastating that it could wipe out all life in a 100mile radius. We are a violent species. And as much as I hate to think it, the chances of another war happening in the future are not remote. If that happens, is it a good idea to have a supply of radioactive material just lying around?! So the radwaste also needs protecting from us.

Thinking about burying the radwaste keeps it ‘safe’, from both perspectives and in that respect I think most people (in the abstract at least) would agree that burying radioactive waste is a good idea. But as we come back to this concept of burying the waste, we start to encounter one of the problems that I saw in the meeting today. It is at this point that nuclear scientists and geologists start to move into an extremely technical discussion of ‘data’, ‘risk’ and ‘factors’, and non-scientists seem to be regarded as receptacles for this data. As such they are subject to the opinion, that once they read the statistics, they will accept or reject the data logically. The problem with this, as we all know, is that most people factor in other things beyond percentages and technical data when making a decision, and most of the scientists in the meeting today know that – they just seem to forget it when planning a big, technically complicated venture like this. The discussions today frequently descended into debates over small technical questions, with no consideration as to whether these levels of detail would even matter to the people who will read the call for volunteers or submit their area as a possible location to store radwaste. It wasn’t until someone actually asked the question “but how much of this is actually relevant to this stage of the process?” that most people sat back and went, ‘well, it’s not’.

How much technical data is necessary at this point in the process?

How much technical data is necessary at this point in the process?

To me this reflects one of the biggest problems with communicating any science, but geoscience in particular. It is all too easy as a technical expert, to get swept up in the intricacies and interest of the data and the challenges it provides and you loose sight of the perspective of anyone who isn’t an expert. More and more often in technical conferences now, geoscientists are told ‘you need to have a communications person embedded in any endeavour from the start to aid in effective communication’, but I think this person also needs to provide another purpose. They need to be a fuse for the experts in the room and halt the discussions any time they get too carried away. Planning in geology is essential and considering the next step is vital for successful projects, but not if it comes at the expense of the first stage, where gaining the engagement of your resident population is at stake.

This is ESPECIALLY important in an area where the topic at hand is controversial or perceived to be threatening. In cases like this ensuring the public enter the discussion with you at all depends on a delicate balance of trust and transparency, and by thinking five steps ahead and providing irrelevant (at the time) data, you can undermine yourself in terms of how a non-expert feels about your project. Anyone who has ever been buried by a mountain of information related to a decision that they are not an expert in can tell that this can make you feel uncertain and unconfident in your decision, and lead you to either seek an opinion from another (who may not be any more technically knowledgeable than you) or just adopt the more familiar choice. In that case heuristics wins over data, even if that isn’t actually the best thing.

So in respect to the plan to request potential participants to submit their area for further examinations as to whether they are even suitable for radioactive dispoasal, I’ll be watching carefully to see just how complex the communications get, and how relevant they stay.

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