The 250,000 year long problem too big to ignore

Later this evening, seven of Britain’s political leaders will take to their respective podiums for the first major leaders’ debate of this election. The list of subjects that will arise can be predicted with relative accuracy; everyone expects that the economy, the National Health Service and immigration will feature prominently. Despite the participation of Natalie Bennett, the leader of the Green Party, the environment, and UK energy policy is unlikely to get so much as a mention.

This is deeply problematic for a number of reasons. The threat of runaway climate change, the burdensome nature of household energy bills and the increasing divisions between each party’s stance over different generation technologies, from fracking to solar farms, should warrant its promotion up the political agenda.

But an absence of political will to engage meaningfully in energy policy, an area that is chronically underfunded by the public purse and poorly regulated, is illustrative of a broader obsession with short-term results that can be measured in five year election cycles. Few votes are won on the environment – that is the accepted wisdom and therefore any mess is often left for subsequent administrations to clean up.

The evidence for this is no more apparent than in our management of intermediate and high level radioactive nuclear waste. And as nuclear power returns to the agenda, with the Coalition and Labour showing determination to build a new plant at Hinkley C in Somerset, it is a thorny issue that is likely to only gain in resonance as we enter the new Parliament post-May.

Prior to 1976, very little thought had been given to how we might dispose of the hazardous nuclear waste produced through our electricity and military programmes. Lower level waste had been safely stored above ground for decades beforehand, but in late 1976 the Government’s geological research institute identified 127 areas that could be appropriate for the safe isolation of the most dangerous intermediate-level and high-level materials. ‘Safe isolation’, in layman’s terms, means burying the waste in the ground at a depth of around 500 metres for an indefinite future – using something called a Geological Disposal Facility (GDF). Yet the intervening years since then have been fraught with u-turns – and despite nearly 40 years passing we are no closer to finding a clear long-term solution for the storage of our most hazardous materials.

Just how much of this stuff is there? Well, our overall legacy waste numbers around 600,000 cubic metres. That is a lot of hazardous material. Enough to fill six Albert Halls. It is currently stored at 36 sites all over the country on a temporary basis.  But, as published in a 2008 White Paper, the government’s favoured option for the long term remains building a GDF – effectively putting the issue to bed for over two hundred thousand years.

In its desire to accelerate the construction of this facility the Coalition put forward proposals in 2012 to find an appropriate site, organised through the Committee on Radioactive Waste Management (CoRWM).

Cumbria was quickly identified as the number one target site. The reasons behind this appear two-fold; an adequate (if not optimal) geology is coupled with a long history of nuclear power in the region (Sellafield) –making it appear politically viable to construct consent towards accommodating the waste in the region.

But when Cumbria Country Council employed its veto in January 2013, effectively putting the brakes on a GDF in Cumbia, momentum stalled.

The team at the Department for Energy and Climate Change scratched their heads and had a rethink. They released a new White Paper in July 2014, announcing their decision to scrap the formal community veto – replacing it with what officials called a positive “test of community support”. The democratic approach has changed yet the goal – a GDF in West Cumbria – appears the same.

To sweeten the deal, the Government announced that communities will receive £1 million annually just for engaging in the process, rising to £2.5 million if they chose to progress to the design and planning phase.

But will incentivising communities with cash work? In our troublesome energy policy landscape, with public confidence eroded as a result of constant Government tinkering, it is an increasingly popular option. However, in order to generate long term consent for storing all the UK’s nuclear waste, money alone may not be an effective solution.

Instead re-framing it as an issue of national importance, with the public made aware of the pressing need to tackle the legacy waste in the UK, could be more effective. However this approach carries its own risks as we push for more new nuclear.

Professor Gordon MacKerron, the former Chair of CoRWM, raised this point when interviewed by the BBC’s Costing the Earth programme last year:

“If you limit it to the problem of managing the legacy waste, in other words disposing of the existing waste, I would think there is a better chance for getting consent for that than saying that everything we might produce in the future might have to go into this facility”.

Mackerron’s comments are particularly pertinent because the Government has already given the green light to a new EDF run plant at Hinkley Point. Many of us would accept that existing waste should be necessarily managed, and could feasibly agree to hosting the hazardous material we already have. But asking a community to store all the future waste from Hinkley Point C (equivalent to another Albert Hall) is an altogether different proposition –burdening a region for hundreds of thousands of years with a political decision made in a single parliament. In light of this, is it no wonder that the Government has struggled to identify willing participants.

As we enter the next parliament, the new administration has a profound responsibility to make headway in finding a long-term solution for the management of our hazardous nuclear material. Kicking it into the long grass in the wake of the problems in Cumbria would represent a terrible mistake. If a GDF is built, waste will be stored underground for as long as humans have occupied the earth. Getting it right is therefore critical, but greater progress must be made.

It is a 250,000 year long problem too big to ignore.