Government to start from scratch on new radioactive waste policy

Environment Minister Michael Meacher has announced a long-term public consultation and research programme on how UK nuclear waste is treated, but any decision on the outcome will not be made until at least 2007.

More than 10,000 tonnes of radioactive waste are currently stored in the United Kingdom, pending a decision on their long-term future. Even if no new nuclear plants are built, and the Government has not ruled this out in its recent launch of an energy review (see related story), and reprocessing of spent fuel ends when existing plants reach the end of their working lives, another 500,000 tonnes of waste will arise during their clean-up over the coming century, the Government says.

Meacher says that a new “wide-ranging and comprehensive” consultation document, Managing Radioactive Waste Safely will help stimulate thorough public debate on the options for managing the UK’s radioactive waste, including whether any or all of the nation’s plutonium should be regarded as a waste product and therefore be included in the management strategy. In this initial consultation on the management of low, intermediate and high-level radioactive wastes, which will last for six months, the Government and the devolved administrations wish to involve as many as possible in order “to inspire public confidence in the decisions and the way in which they are implemented”.

Through opinion polls, the internet, workshops, citizens’ juries, consensus conferences, stakeholder dialogues, local authority and community groups and research panels, hundreds of thousands of the UK’s population could give their views on managing radioactive waste over the coming centuries. In addition, an on-line debate is also being held on the subject . To ensure that all the information provided is accurate, objective and complete, the Government proposes setting up an independent advisory body, which would, for example, help seek the public’s views on whether waste should be put in an underground repository, or be stored until more is known about its risks and better ways of dealing with it.

“Protecting the public, workers and the environment now and in the future is the top priority for the Government and devolved administrations,” Meacher said. “Any decisions made on managing radioactive waste cannot and must not be rushed. The legacy of a wrong decision could be catastrophic.”

In the same week, the governmental Radioactive Waste Management Advisory Committee (RWMAC) published its advice to the Government on the way in which it believes future policy for the long-term management of the UK’s solid radioactive waste should be decided. RWMAC is suggesting a fresh approach, based on openness, accessible decision-making and fairness and is keen that for the first time all the practicable solutions need to be evaluated on, as far as possible, a common bases, both openly and transparently, to decide what is best. The committee is also suggesting that the process is overseen by an independent or, at least, balanced interest body that is widely perceived as being capable of representing the broader public interest.

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