Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum submitted by British Nuclear Fuels Ltd (BNFL)

  Government should decide on an overall policy for radioactive waste management which recognises:

    —  that nuclear wastes are currently managed safely;

    —  that prolonged safe storage, for up to 100 years, is a viable approach to the management of intermediate and high level wastes, whether fuel is reprocessed or not;

    —  that geological disposal is advocated internationally as the most appropriate "final" solution and that barriers tend to be socio-political and socio-economic, not technological;

    —  the need to manage legacy waste on a commercial footing;

    —  a clear distinction between legacy wastes and those associated with new and replacement nuclear generation;

    —  the environment and trade benefits which ILW substitution would deliver;

    —  the need for clarity for future nuclear generators in respect of their obligations for spent fuel management costs; and

    —  that the absence of final agreement of a long term strategy for waste management should not be a barrier to future nuclear business or new reactor build.

  There are a number of inter-connected steps for safely managing radioactive waste ranging from production and storage, retrieval and packaging, production during decommissioning operations and finally implementation of the selected long term management step (currently disposal). The DEFRA consultation document focuses heavily on the final management step and raises associated issues which BNFL agrees warrant full public debate. This inevitably will be time consuming, as demonstrated in other countries such as Finland. However, BNFL believe that there are difficulties with waste management policy as it is currently interpreted by regulators and others and as it is applied in practice in the nuclear industry. These aspects have been subject to scrutiny recently, For example the Sixth Report ("The Environment Agency") of the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Committee recommended in May 2000 "we strongly urge the Government to produce as soon as possible, in consultation with the Agency a clear statement of regulatory policy and practice in the area of radioactive substances and waste".

  BNFL's submission concentrates on this lack of regulator principles, criteria and methodology.


    —  Apart from "final" disposal, there are aspects of waste management policy which Government needs to clarify on an earlier timescale. For example, DEFRA draft guidelines on the regulation of radioactive discharges, where primacy is given to progressive reduction, are already being implemented by the Environment Agency and have the potential to detrimentally impact upon the UK's ability to deal safely with legacy radioactive wastes.

    —  A seven year timetable for "non-disposal" issues is too protracted even allowing for the fact that "getting it right" is more important than meeting an arbitrary deadline; it perpetuates uncertainty over the appropriate strategy for dealing with legacy waste and limits the certainty which future owners/operators of nuclear facilities (existing and new) can have regarding their obligations in waste management matters.

    —  The perceived agreement to ILW substitution should be implemented at the latest at the end of Stage One of the consultation (2002) since it will realise genuine environmental and trade benefits.

  1.1  International experience (from Finland, Sweden, Switzerland and USA as well as elsewhere) shows that getting acceptance for disposal takes considerable time. Experience also shows that the probability of success is greatly improved if there is a clear and transparent process with clear associated responsibilities and a "road map" or plan such that progress can be easily recorded. The DEFRA document recognises these factors; in particular there is a proposal for research to examine the feasibility of waste management options. However, BNFL believes that DEFRA should recognise at the outset that only sufficient information should be gathered in order to firm up on future policy. Based on international experience, the expectation must be that disposal is selected as the preferred long-term management option. In such circumstances there is little point in developing all options to an equal and detailed degree.

  1.2  Although it is recognised that it is more important to "get it right" than to meet arbitrary timescales, BNFL believe that the proposed timetable is too protracted from a short term waste management perspective and will generate continuing uncertainty over the appropriate direction for waste management.

  1.3  During the period to 2007 many key decisions on the approach to retrieving and packaging legacy waste in particular will be needed, not only at BNFL Sellafield but almost certainly at other nuclear sites such as Dounreay and Aldermaston. Although in principle there are agreed policies and working arrangements to guide these decisions, in practice the underlying approach which has traditionally been deployed by the regulators, NII and EA, can be conflicting.

  1.4  The key driver for NII is to ensure that waste is managed in such a way as to reduce on-site risk and hazard to acceptable levels. For EA, its driver is to reduce off-site discharges, continually restricting what is permitted, not on safety grounds but on public acceptability. Since it is inevitable that the retrieval and processing of legacy waste will, in its own right, generate discharges, these conflicting positions can hinder progress and could ultimately make dealing with legacy wastes in particular a technical impossibility. This in turn will prolong the storage of raw waste in old facilities (currently over 40 years) for longer than should be considered acceptable.

  1.5  The fundamental difficulty is that there is an inappropriate and inconsistent framework for the regulation of the nuclear industry which requires the industry to understand and navigate between potentially conflicting regulatory requirements. The potential consequences are serious and include:

    —  failure to achieve cost-effectiveness in the allocation of resources for environmental health and safety improvements;

    —  imposition of substantial additional, but unwarranted, costs for the UK economy; and

    —  diversion of scarce resources which could be used for the reduction of more significant environmental risks or for meeting other social needs.

  1.6  These difficulties stem from the fundamental conflict underlying the principles of regulation adopted by the NII/HSE (the 1992 Tolerability of Risk (ToR) approach) and the current proposals for the regulation of radioactive substances by the Environment Agency published by DEFRA:

    —  NII/HSE ToR, and its extension to non-nuclear industries in "Reducing Risk; Protecting People", has been thoroughly examined at public inquiries, has been subject of wide consultation, and is internationally recognised;

    —  ToR delineates three quantified regions of risk:

      —  the highest is "intolerable" where there is no justification on any grounds;

      —  the lowest is "broadly acceptable", within which, provided precautions are maintained it would be unreasonable to insist on expensive further improvements; and

      —  a "tolerable" central region, where risk is accepted if its reduction is either impracticable or if the cost of reduction is disproportionate to the reduction in risk (BPM/ALARP);

    —  EA "risk regions" (does limits, site constraints, source constraints, implied long-term limiting dose and, doses "of no regulatory concern") are not consistent with those used in the NII/HSE ToR system;

    —  EA require discharges to be reduced, far below values which would correspond to dose (risk) limits or constraints and with little or no regard to cost benefit; and

    —  DEFRA's draft guidance to EA emphasises that where the legal requirement to achieve BPM conflicts with a requirement to progressively reduce discharges and discharge limits then the latter takes primacy, apart from safety.

  1.7  In addition to the potential conflicts between limiting discharges whilst reducing on-site hazards, there is a further conflict. This relates to balancing the short term hazard and risks associated with raw storage of legacy wastes with the desire to achieve low risks in the very long term once waste has been consigned to a deep repository (100,000 years plus). Without a specific location, design and safety case for a repository, it is inevitable that the current packaging requirements "imposed" by the long-term are very conservative. Meeting these requirements, or in some instances demonstrating that these requirements can be met, can significantly delay the retrieval and packaging of legacy wastes thus prolonging the hazards, risks and costs from old stores. The balance between short and long term risks must be re-evaluated in a transparent, holistic way.

  1.8  With respect to storage, the nuclear industry has already proved that it can both store spent fuel and recycle it. Similarly it has demonstrated that the resulting wastes can be conditioned into safe forms for storage over many decades (and arguably over centuries) in modern stores ie Interim Safe Storage. All current operational waste arisings (HLW, ILW and LLW) at Sellafield will be processed through modern plants for storage in modern stores or disposal at Drigg. The implementation of this strategy is not considered to be an issue. Where difficulties are encountered is in deciding on the immediate end point following retrieval and processing of the legacy wastes which have been stored, in some instances, for over 40 years.

  1.9  In the event of accidents, the robust design of stores and the waste products themselves, provide environmental protection. The stores are high integrity structures, designed to be resistant to accidental impacts and fires. For example at Sellafield they are designed to withstand seismic events and are generally heavily shielded with reinforced concrete walls, typically greater than one metre thick. Tests in the USA have illustrated the ability of thick reinforced concrete walls to resist aircraft impacts and therefore demonstrate that modern stores are very resistant to energetic impact. Furthermore, full scale trials on encapsulated waste forms have shown that the effects of a fire at 1,000°C produce insignificant degradation.

  1.10  Interim safe stores already exist and provide evidence that wastes associated with nuclear power can be cost-effectively and safely managed whilst the disposal issues, or other long term solutions, are resolved—even though this may be many decades into the future. Hence, nuclear waste should not be a "show-stopping" issue as far as the Energy Policy Review is concerned.

  1.11  The management of over 40 years worth of legacy wastes should be viewed as a national issue since the wastes in question have arisen from past national decisions to have an independent nuclear deterrent and a programme of Magnox nuclear power stations with subsequent reprocessing of fuel. Those responsible for the physical day to day management of this legacy recognise the need to make timely progress to improve the current situation. The seven year delay, implicit in the proposed consultation, before a clear coherent UK policy is established, is potentially damaging to the short and medium term actions which must be taken to ensure the safe management of legacy wastes.

  1.12  In addition to the difficulties which a seven year programme would create for legacy waste it could also prolong a debate on waste substitution which has already been underway for over six years and for which BNFL believes there is both strong independent support and significant support from customers. Activity in waste arising from overseas fuel reprocessing will be returned; the debate is entirely on what form the returned activity will take:

    —  HMG, acting on the advice of RWMAC, has already endorsed, within an extensive range of all credible scenarios, that there would be no net detriment to the UK environment from ILW substitution. By offering ILW substitution, the UK would not be foregoing options about how to deal with its own wastes, be this long-term storage or eventual disposal arrangements. Furthermore, BNFL believes ILW substitution to be the Best Practical Environmental Option for implementing waste return for overseas reprocessing contracts;

    —  in Cm 2919, the Government noted that the LLW and ILW retained in the UK as a result of substitution "represent only a small proportion of the volumes of wastes of domestic origin and do not create any novel waste management problems". BNFL firmly believes therefore that the small incremental portion is likely to be within the error band associated with estimates of the total UK waste inventory. Therefore any difference in assessed environmental impact upon any credible long term waste management strategy would not be significant and would not impact upon the strategy eventually adopted arising from the consultation process;

    —  The Commons Trade and Industry Select Committee's 11th Report, July 1998, recommended that: "It is important that the question of substitution be recognised as having significant trade implications, and as being very much more than a technical or scientific issue";

    —  in addition to a long period of uncertainty being a difficulty within the UK, it also creates major uncertainty for BNFL's overseas customers;

    —  a number of BNFL's overseas customers have confirmed a keen interest in the implementation of waste return by substitution; and

    —  BNFL believes that the link between ILW substitution and the availability of an ILW repository within a 25 year timeframe should be removed quickly.

  1.13  As part of the current waste management consultation DEFRA has requested views on "the link between waste substitution and the availability of a long term management strategy". BNFL urgently requests HMG to give its approval for the Company to offer unconditional and irrevocable substitution of ILW (as well as the currently approved LLW substitution) on an early timescale in order to enable BNFL to realise genuine environmental and trade benefits. The seven year timescale for the consultation process, if it were to preclude early resolution of the ILW substitution issue, would very likely jeopardise achievement of the potential trade benefits. Therefore, BNFL strongly urges separation of the ILW substitution issue from the remainder of the consultation process and its early resolution.


    —  The hazard reduction driver for retrieval and treatment of legacy wastes and the pressures to reduce off-site discharges, are in conflict.

    —  The programme for short term hazard reduction for legacy wastes could be jeopardised if all the (theoretical) very long term requirements for deep disposal have to be resolved before any progress can be made; a phased approach is essential.

    —  ILW substitution should be confirmed quickly, after stage one of the consultation exercise.

    —  There is a suggestion that some plutonium should be declared as a waste—it should not be. BNFL however realises that there is debate about this issue and that for planning purposes it may, on balance, be appropriate to consider in outline what the long-term consequences of future policy changes in this area might be.

  2.1  BNFL adheres to the well-established regulatory system for radiological protection, which has been developed within an international framework. The UK's Health and Safety law and requirements for environmental control all rely upon the principle of proportionality, which requires that action taken is commensurate with the risks involved. This principle requires a balance to be struck between a reduction in risk and the practicality and cost of the measures to reduce it.

  2.2  BNFL is committed to an Environmental Impact Strategy that is justified on health and safety, science, environment and economic grounds. This offers the best overall way forward in terms of the health and safety of our workforce, the general public and the environment.

  2.3  BNFL believes that there are aspects of proposed regulation and legislation that are not "joined-up", consistent or logical. A transparent, quantified evaluation of the balance of benefit and detriment would enable both the Government and the public to appreciate the full implications of any policy or regulatory decision.

  2.4  This is particularly the case for decisions involving large spend for small health, safety or environmental benefit, since these have potential impacts upon the national economy, and there is a real danger of inappropriately focusing the nation's resources.

  2.5  The majority of the Sellafield facilities are the result of two national strategic programmes, namely the independent nuclear deterrent and the nuclear electricity generation using the Magnox fuel cycle. Many of these facilities contain potentially hazardous radioactive waste (liquids, solids and sludges) from these programmes. This waste will have to be retrieved, conditioned and consigned to appropriate long-term storage. These activities will increasingly dominate Sellafield operations and will inevitably result in some liquid and aerial discharges.

  2.6  It is of national importance that legacy wastes are retrieved and conditioned in a timely, safe and effective manner. The primary driver for legacy management must be hazard and risk reduction and progress must not be constrained by overly restrictive discharge limits or over conservative waste specifications for disposal.

  2.7  The current formal policy, as defined in Cm 2919 does not create difficulties. However, difficulties are introduced by various regulatory interpretations and published guidelines. As described in item 1 above there are inconsistencies between NII and EA:

    —  the EA Explanatory Document to assist public consultation on future regulation of Sellafield discharges proposes that discharge reduction should take primacy in the regulation of the site. BNFL do not consider that the EA proposals are either risk based or proportionate and as such we consider that they will potentially restrict BNFL's ability to undertake retrieval and conditioning of legacy wastes in a timely and efficient manner; and

    —  the regulation of Sellafield should be risk based, aligning with the HSE's Tolerability of Risk methodology and proportionate (ie the measures and resources committed to reducing risk should be proportionate to the likely benefits achieved).

  2.8  With regard to separated UK plutonium product, of which there will be about 100 tonnes by 2010, (equivalent to over 700 million barrels of oil in energy terms) the suggestion has been made by the House of Lords Select Committee that a proportion of it should be declared a waste and then packaged accordingly. Although this is not current Government Policy it has a major impact in conditioning the thinking of the Regulators and other stakeholders and can bring BNFL into sharp conflict with other organisations. Despite these difficulties, BNFL is firmly of the view that:

    —  the UK stockpile of separated plutonium represents a considerable financial and technological investment in a significant potential future energy resource;

    —  having invested significantly to create this potential source of energy it appears to be illogical to invest again to convert it to a waste form without at least extracting some benefit from it. The waste form has not yet been defined and immobilisation has technical, economic and political uncertainties. In contrast, MOX fuel is well established and has been used safely for over 30 years with more than 1,500 tonnes HM MOX fuel produced worldwide;

    —  it does not appear to be sensible to declare a valuable nuclear fuel such as plutonium as a waste during a period when there is an ongoing debate about energy policy, including nuclear energy;

    —  declaring plutonium as a waste and packaging it as such, will deny future generations access to a very considerable energy resource, in direct conflict with the principles of sustainability;

    —  MOX fuel, after use in a reactor, could be considered to be a suitable waste form for long term storage and disposal or a future energy resource following further recycle; and

    —  further, two AP1,000 reactors built to replace the current Magnox fleet would generate electricity and use the plutonium available at 2010 in about 30 years. Compared to the cost of direct conversion to waste, this would result in a net financial benefit of about £1 billion to the UK.

  2.9  Technically, all of the UK's separated plutonium stocks could be made suitable for fabrication as MOX fuel for reactor use; it is a question of the degree of work needed to bring it to satisfactory condition for such fabrication. The pre-treatment may be unacceptable in terms of hazard incurred and hence cost. BNFL therefore, recognises that there is a need, in any long term management plan to consider, alternative ways of dealing with such material.

  2.10  As with plutonium, there are now suggestions that some uranium should be declared and treated as waste. BNFL considers that to take such a step would be to foreclose potential future business options when there is no overriding necessity to do so now. To date, over 15,000 tU has been recycled into fresh fuel in the UK and a number of overseas customers are making arrangements for recycle of their own material. Meanwhile all uranium, whether from Magnox or Thorp reprocessing or from the enrichment process, is stored in safe, monitored and retrievable form. In the UK there is no agreement on what form any uranium which may be declared as waste would need to take in order to make it compatible with current UK disposal concepts.


    —  The strategy for decommissioning nuclear reactors should continue to be based on a balanced view of many factors (such as safety, environmental, financial).

    —  Some parts of nuclear stations will be decommissioned early whereas other parts will be deferred to give quantifiable environmental and safety benefits.

    —  A successor for Drigg will be required and this should be seen as a national (not a BNFL) issue.

    —  Modern reactors generate significantly less waste than the existing Magnox and AGR fleets.

    —  It would be wrong for legacy waste to colour the positive contribution which modern reactor designs can make to environmental issues and energy policy.

    —  A single new LWR would only increase existing/committed waste volumes by about 1 per cent.

    —  There is a need for clarity for future nuclear generators in respect of their obligations for spent fuel management costs.

    —  The production of MOX fuel only marginally increases the quantities of wastes generated in the UK and does not pose any new technical challenges.

Decommissioning of nuclear power plants

  3.1  BNFL performs a rigorous analysis of potential decommissioning strategy options for its reactor sites. In selecting our preferred option we balance a wide range of relevant safety, environmental, technical, regulatory, socio-political and financial factors as mentioned in paragraphs 3.15 to 3.32 of the DEFRA consultation document. It is vitally important however, that provided safety can be maintained, no single issue should dominate the selection of an acceptable strategy, nor should relevant issues and criteria be ignored.

  3.2  The resultant strategy involves a mixture of extensive early dismantling of some facilities as well as some deferred dismantling. A consistent approach for decommissioning BNFL power stations has been developed for use across all BNFL stations. Since reactors are extremely robust structures whose activity is dominated by short lived radionuclides (~ five years half-life) it is possible and beneficial to defer dismantling for some decades. This allows radioactive decay to reduce the absolute quantity of waste and avoids the use of complex remote dismantling techniques. In contrast, for fuel cooling ponds and other active facilities, where the dominant radioactivity has a relatively long half-life (~ 30 years), there is little radiological benefit to be gained from deferral, so dismantling will proceed soon after reactor shut-down

  3.3  Reactor decommissioning generates both LLW and ILW. Significant quantities of LLW will arise after the expected closure date of Drigg (about 2050) reinforcing the statement in paragraph 3.3 of the DEFRA document that a replacement for Drigg will need to be found. This is not a BNFL responsibility but should be viewed as a national issue which needs to be addressed as part of the policy review.

  3.4  With respect to ILW, there is presently no disposal route and a timescale for its availability is uncertain. In BNFL's view, this reinforces the opinion that, where ILW is already in a passively safe state, eg reactors, there is no benefit in dismantling such structures prior to an ILW route becoming available. Although the reactors could be dismantled before a repository becomes available, the resulting packaged waste would still need to be stored, in effect merely transferring the waste from an existing passively safe form to another form which may ultimately prove not to be the required form for long term management.

Construction of new (power) plants

  3.5  A modern LWR reactor generates significantly less operational waste than Magnox or AGR reactors. It would also generate less decommissioning waste.

  3.6  Because of these much reduced waste quantities, a single modern LWR, over its projected lifetime, will generate less than about 1 per cent of the total UK ILW which will need to be managed. Such small additional quantities of waste will also be similar in nature (physical/chemical/radiochemical) to the existing wastes and hence will not present any new technical challenges.

  3.7  The decommissioning of a modern LWR will also be simpler than the equivalent process for older reactors. The technology and experience of decommissioning reactors and other facilities, safely and to the satisfaction of commercial customers have already been demonstrated.

  3.8  The existing legacy wastes have arisen because of decisions taken in the past for the UK to have an independent nuclear deterrent and subsequently that it would have a power programme using Magnox reactors which in turn gave a fuel cycle dependant on reprocessing.

  3.9  It would be wrong for the legacy of the past to colour the positive contribution which modern nuclear designs can make to global environmental issues and future UK energy policy. The incremental wastes created by replacement reactor plant would only add marginally to the legacy of nuclear wastes already being stored, treated and conditioned in the UK. A clear waste management policy is needed in order to create a clearly understood playing field for all participants in the construction, ownership and operation of future nuclear stations. This will allow plants to be built and run as efficiently and effectively as possible.

  3.10  Given the expected life of modern reactors (at least 40 years) a financial approach similar to that in the USA could be used to help provide certainty about future liabilities. The US Department of Energy (DoE) system levies a small sum per kilowatt-hour of energy produced. The DoE use this fund to take and deal with the long-term management and disposal of the spent fuel arising from USA power stations.

Commencement of MOX production

  3.11  The operation of SMP and the production of MOX fuel using plutonium separated by the reprocessing of overseas fuel, should be seen as a component of the solution to the issue of plutonium disposition. It strengthens the arguments presented above in paragraph 2.8 that plutonium should not be declared a waste.

  3.12  When the Sellafield MOX Plant (SMP) is fully active it will only generate small quantities of ILW (about half of one per cent of all the waste to be managed in total in the UK). The waste types which the plant will generate are not new and such waste types already exist and are being safely processed or stored in other facilities at Sellafield. It should also be recognised that these waste types have been generated in the past from the MOX Demonstration Facility and other plutonium plants and that in all cases the encapsulated waste products have been accepted as meeting currently perceived requirements for disposal.

  3.13  As with wastes from any future new reactor build, the wastes from SMP:

    —  are very small by comparison to existing and committed wastes;

    —  are of the same type as existing wastes;

    —  will be managed using existing facilities and technologies; and

    —  will not create any new issues for their longer term management.


12 November 2001

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