Spent nuclear fuel:

Lynda Warren | 10 years ago

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With inconsistencies apparent in government policy on nuclear power, has the UK¹s approach to spent nuclear fuel really been thought through?

Not all the implications of UK’s attitude towards nuclear power have been thought through, and inconsistencies are apparent in the development of government policy.

According to ‘Meeting the energy challenge: a white paper on nuclear power’, published in 2008, ‘the Government has concluded that any nuclear power stations that might be built in the UK should proceed on the basis that spent nuclear fuel will not be reprocessed and that accordingly waste management plans and financing should proceed on this basis’. Given the current policy on radioactive waste management, this means that spent fuel from the next generation of nuclear power stations will be disposed of in geological disposal facilities. Disposing of spent fuel as waste means that the full energy potential cannot be exploited, which goes against the grain of current thinking on energy efficiency. It might be supposed that the Government chose the disposal option to avoid getting entangled in the controversy that would surround proposals for continuing reprocessing because of the perceived security risks.

This policy does not sit easily with the Government’s latest announcement on nuclear security. In ‘The road to 2010: addressing the nuclear question in the 21st century’, the Prime Minister states that the UK will take a leading role in exploring multilateral approaches to the nuclear-fuel cycle to give countries ‘attractive and robust options for assured supply of nuclear fuel… without the need to invest in expensive and technologically complex enrichment and reprocessing technology’. He goes on to refer to the need ‘to explore the options for proliferation-resistant fuel cycles, including ones which do not involve reprocessing’. Note that he does not exclude ones that do! This suggests to me that reprocessing may not be completely out of the question for UK fuel in the future. In France, reprocessing is carried out as part of the management of the fuel cycle. Given that French companies are potential players in the bid to develop the next generation of nuclear power stations in the UK, the possibility surely exists that, at some stage, someone will suggest reprocessing.

I think  the UK government is going to need to address the issues surrounding reprocessing head-on in the not-too-distant future. It needs to explain the different issues raised by reprocessing the complex waste streams from previous power-generation plants and how these compare with the new fuel-cycle management. The publication of ‘The road to 2010’ has opened up the debate on balancing the needs for global energy security against the need to avoid nuclear proliferation. Reprocessing should be part of that debate.

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Lynda Warren

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