Repeated delay in finalising geological disposal policy is a key constraint on the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority’s (NDA) long-term strategy to clean up the environment, according to the National Audit Office (NAO). The GDF delays could be costing the UK taxpayer billions of pounds.
In its recent report, “The Nuclear Decommissioning Authority: progress with reducing risk at Sellafield”, the NAO makes clear (p23, Figure 5):
The NDA needs a long-term repository for spent fuel and high activity waste to progress its decommissioning plans. However, the Department’s plans to identify a suitable location have been repeatedly delayed.
In simple terms, failure to progress the GDF means that the NDA has to plan for interim storage facilities which may not be needed, and has to potentially package radioactive waste more than once. GDF uncertainty can therefore cost taxpayers many additional, unnecessary billions of pounds. The need to maintain dozens of interim surface storage facilities, and to repackage waste if original canisters decay, also increases risk to public health. It may be a small extra risk, but it is an avoidable risk.
The NAO is the UK’s independent watchdog, reporting to Parliament on how effectively public bodies discharge their duties and use taxpayer’s money. Its recent Sellafield report does not focus on the GDF, but is a higher-level analysis of the projected costs and risks of nuclear decommissioning. The NAO note that during its lifetime the NDA has successfully managed to stabilise long-term projections for the cost of nuclear decommissioning.
Although the 2014-15 estimated costs may be double the projected costs made in 2004-05, the NAO commend the NDA for providing a clearer understanding of the scale and complexity of managing legacy radioactive wastes. Estimates for the final costs of decommissioning have now stabilised at around £120bn. However, the NAO remains concerned about the continuing wide range of estimated final costs — which is caused by the long-term horizons of the decommissioning programme and the uncertainty about any work planned beyond 10 years, of which the GDF is a key part.
The GDF is a key part because greater certainty will allow waste to be packaged in appropriate disposal canisters just once. And the amount of required interim storage for waste awaiting final disposal can also be better defined.
The NAO actually provides a (non-GDF) example of how the costs of repackaging radioactive waste can easily escalate. It cites the increased cost of having to repackage some of the Plutonium stock. The material was packaged either in canisters which are not appropriate for the new Plutonium store, or some canisters have decayed to the point the plutonium needs to be placed in new, safe canisters. The estimated cost of this process has more than doubled from £470 million to between £1bn – £1.5bn.
The increased risk of transferring radioactive waste from old to new canisters is also evident from an incident in the United States in April 2018. Waste that had been stored at the Idaho National Laboratory (INL) since the 1950s and 1960s had to be placed in new canisters in preparation for their permanent disposal at WIPP. There was an unintended release of radioactivity while waste was being transferred from old to new canisters. On this occasion there were no injuries to workers or health risk to the wider public. But it underlines the benefits of creating certainty so that waste is packaged just once ready for disposal.
The NAO state that the latest earliest estimated time for the GDF to be operational is now at some point between 2043-2048. The NAO’s report implicitly makes clear that in terms of both cost and risk, the sooner Government progresses the search for a GDF, the better for all of us.
Given the Government’s recent re-commitment to the new nuclear programme, you’d think that from their perspective they’d see the sense in progressing a GDF if only to help stabilise long-term decommissioning costs. Uncertainty about long-term obligations is a significant factor undermining investor confidence — a GDF would help Ministers create a more positive nuclear investment environment.