Government agrees to keep foreign nuclear waste

The government has decided to keep nuclear waste arising from the reprocessing of overseas spent fuel and dump it in this country despite having no permanent solution for the UK's existing nuclear waste problems.

Current contracts for reprocessing spent fuel from foreign countries stipulate that British Nuclear Fuels should return all but the lowest level waste to its country of origin.

In reality none of this has ever been sent back.

Instead, the waste, mostly from countries such as Japan, Germany, Italy and Sweden, is stored above ground as glass bricks, untreated liquid waste or solid material in metal drums.

The decision this week, taken as a result of a three month consultation, means that the majority of nuclear waste from reprocessing, both low and intermediate level, will be kept like this, and only the very high level waste would be returned to its country of origin – overturning a thirty year policy that the UK would not become a dumping ground for foreign nuclear waste.

Trade Secretary, Patricia Hewitt announced the decision in a written statement to the House of Commons saying the benefits would be “both environmental and economic.” She claimed that the additional income the decision would bring – up to £680 million – would be used for “nuclear clean up which will result in savings for the taxpayer over the longer term.”

A spokesperson for the Sellafield reprocessing plant told edie news that the decision would also result in the earlier return of overseas waste and a six fold reduction in the number of waste shipments to BNFL s overseas customers.

High activity, long lived, radioactive waste will be shipped back to Japan, or carried on ferries and trains to countries such as Germany, Italy and Sweden.

The decision was condemned by conservation groups and the Liberal Democrats. Norman Baker, Liberal Democrat shadow environment secretary said:

“This is a deeply irresponsible environmental decision. Once again Britain’s environmental and health needs are being ignored in policies driven by the Treasury and DTI. This is a terrible attempt to offload some of the £48 billion cost of cleaning up nuclear sites.”

“The Energy Act was supposed to help Britain clean up, but in order to pay for it we are becoming a nuclear dumpsite. The nuclear industry is an economic, social and environmental millstone that hangs around Britain’s neck.”

The government has now set up a committee to find a way of safely disposing of the high and intermediate level waste. As yet, no preferred method has been established from the 20 options being considered, but storage in drums either above ground or in deep rock caverns is likely to be the eventual choice.

By David Hopkins

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