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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 60-79)



  60. Do you have any programme for replacing it or putting that right?
  (Mr Bonser) The short answer is yes, but if I could perhaps just explain. We have two vitrification lines, it is one plant but it has got two production lines in it; those two production lines, you are quite right, have proved problematical to get them running full-time, reliably, for months on end, and we have had a number of programmes to improve them, and they have been improved and the production levels have been improved. They have got a long way to go, and we have some programmes to improve them further. We have also built a third line, and that third line is now complete, and it is in the final stages of commissioning, and we are looking to have that up and running imminently, so that then that will add to the capacity and start to enable us to not only keep reprocessing going but also to meet this envelope which I mentioned earlier.

  61. And I guess there is quite a backlog?
  (Mr Bonser) There is a backlog. If you take the last 50 years of high-level liquid waste, both from the weapons programme and from the civil programme, I would not suggest you do this but if you did, it would fill about seven double-decker buses.

  62. Just one other point. In terms of what one then does with waste, in vitrified or other form, are you still interested in an international, or global, site solution? I understand that you were very interested in that at one time, in Australia, in the outback, and you put some money into researching that; are you still doing that?
  (Mr Bonser) We have indeed taken part in a thing called Pangea, which was an organisation which was looking at using some of the original geology, which has not changed over many, many, many millennia, and saying, `well, this is a very stable rock.' And there are areas in Australia and in other parts of the world, but let us stick with Australia, which are very dry rock, there is hardly any groundwater, but whatever groundwater there is tends to go away from seas, it sort of goes inwards and then just evaporates, so it does not find its way to the seas, and so on, there is no hydraulic flow. And this is an ideal geology, you do not need an ideal geology, you need a geology that is good enough, but here is a geology that is extremely good, and the argument goes that if you can find such a geology the safety case is relatively easy to make, over geological periods, that this is a very safe period to put radioactive waste. And if there were then both the international political will to go through all this, and it was acceptable, then this would be one of the options that could be considered. We are not pushing that hard, it was an option to look at, and indeed we have stepped down significantly our investment in that over the past year or two.

  63. Why is that?
  (Mr Bonser) Because we think that we have gone far enough with the concept that it is well enough developed, you do not need to keep on pumping money into these concepts, it is well enough developed. The Australian position, it was rejected in Australia, so either the time is not right, maybe it will never happen, but we have just stepped down the funding.

Mr Breed

  64. I am not certain whether you are familiar with the radioactive liquid discharge that has currently been given a licence from Devonport Dockyard, in respect of the refit for nuclear submarine programme?
  (Mr Bonser) Not in detail, no.

  65. But, there, they are discharging, and licences have been given to discharge, this liquid directly into the sea, via the river there. Many of us feel that is not the right process to do. Are you saying that, in fact, you would be able to reprocess this liquid, in the sense that it is not huge amounts of liquid, but it could be reprocessed with you, that it would not have to be discharged?
  (Mr Bonser) I am afraid I do not know the details, really, but, usually, when a waste fuel has got to the point of being a liquid then there has been other treatments, and so on, and it is a result of treatments. Reprocessing is very specifically designed to take used fuel from the reactors and to dissolve the used fuel out, that is what reprocessing is, to do and it separates it out.

  66. I believe this is the coolant around the reactor, of the submarines?
  (Mr Beveridge) Yes, we do not know a lot about it, here, today, but I think it is likely to be tritiated water.


  67. Perhaps you might look at it and let us have a note on it?
  (Mr Beveridge) We could do, yes.

Diana Organ

  68. Talking about reprocessing of used fuels, can I just ask you one or two questions about that. How much spent fuel awaiting reprocessing exists, in addition to your seven double-decker buses of the liquid waste?
  (Mr Bonser) I would not like to mislead you. The seven double-decker buses is the-high-level waste after the processing. The fuel waiting beforehand, I do not have a precise number here, but I can certainly get you that.

  69. I wonder if you could send it to us, because we would be interested?
  (Mr Bonser) Yes. And, if it would be okay, I will break it down by the different types of fuel.

  70. Thank you very much for that. I know at the moment that we are into a sort of state of really no policy, both on energy and what we are doing about waste management from the nuclear industry, because we are still debating about energy policy, but if the Government energy review did conclude that they were not going to build any new nuclear power stations in the foreseeable future, in the near future, would you then view plutonium stockpiles differently, because you would say they are not a valuable product, they actually are waste, would you recategorise them, if Government came clear about its energy policy?
  (Mr Bonser) If there was a decision not to have new nuclear power stations?

  71. Yes?
  (Mr Bonser) Fine. Well, I was going to say, if that were a decision for ever, but I guess there is never a decision for ever; clearly, if there are going to be no further nuclear power stations then you have only two options, really. One is to use the existing power stations to burn the plutonium, if you chose to do that, and currently there are not plans to do that. And secondly then, if you did not use the current power stations, which you could, but if you chose not to, I guess you would have a choice of saying, `well, as the UK, we will never have new nuclear power stations, here is this plutonium, therefore, yes, it is a waste and we should treat it as a waste;' or you would say, `well, okay, we've decided not to have new nuclear power stations, but this is a very significant energy resource; are we right to lock it away for ever, for all future generations, in the way that makes it extremely hard to get at it, or should we continue to store in a safe way to keep the option open?'.

  72. If the Government made it clear that they were not going to build new power stations, what would you do with the plutonium, would you call it waste and treat it as waste, or would you then say, `well, we'll have it for the future, because it might be useful;' what is your view?
  (Mr Bonser) Personally, I would keep it. I cannot understand, under the sustainability type considerations, how it can be sustainable to deliberately destroy an energy source for future generations. I find that a difficult concept.
  (Mr Beveridge) I think, if I can add, if you look back over the last 30 years, and there has been a huge change in the energy mix in the UK, there was the dominance of coal in the seventies, and moving through to gas in the late eighties and nineties, and I do not think many people would have predicted in the seventies what was going to happen in the nineties, and who knows what will happen in the next 30 to 50 years, so keeping your options open with plutonium as an energy resource may well be the best way forward.

  73. But have we not got a problem because there is so much—you are going to send us a note about the spent fuel that is awaiting reprocessing; should not that be your greatest priority at the moment, about actually clearing and dealing with the backlog of reprocessing, before we even think about anything else?
  (Mr Bonser) Yes, I would agree with that, that we should be dealing with the backlog, and, indeed, we are, and also we should be dealing with the backlog of wastes rather than fuel, the wastes that have been produced, from both the military programme and, say, the early Magnox programmes, and so on, we should be dealing with those wastes, because some of the facilities that those historic wastes are stored in are deteriorating, some of them 40, 50 years old already. We have been carefully looking after them, we do engineering checks on them, we get our civil engineers to look at them, and so on and so forth, but there will come a point where we really, really must get in there and empty them out and treat those wastes; and that is also, to me, a priority for dealing with wastes at Sellafield.

  74. And, given that you have agreed that it is a priority, what is your timescale of seeing that you can deal with it?
  (Mr Bonser) This is difficult stuff to deal with, and what you should not do, for different reasons from the reasons that Chris Murray stated, you should not rush at this, because some of this material has been in facilities for 20, 30, 40 years, virtually untouched, it has been cooled, there has been ventilation, but the material has been sitting there. As soon as you disturb some of this material, gases may be given off, something might fall, a piece of material may fall and give a shock to the bottom of the building, and so on, you have just got to be extremely careful, and you have got to make haste slowly and think ahead; and in this area the NII are absolutely right to demand of us very thorough safety cases before we start to go into these facilities. So we should do it absolutely as quickly as we can, but quick is not the number one priority, safe is the number one priority.

  75. You have intimated that you think that reprocessing is a good idea and a thing that should be done, but, given that British Energy wish to stop it, they wish reprocessing to stop, it is expensive, it produces a problem because we then have intermediate-level waste produced as a result of reprocessing, and it produces plutonium, which, in itself, has a problem, and particularly after September 11 we have to be careful about the storage of that because of issues to do with theft, proliferation and attack on it, do you still think it is a good idea?
  (Mr Bonser) Reprocessing?

  76. Yes; given all those arguments stacked up against it, of which aeroplanes flying into it might be the biggest one?
  (Mr Bonser) If I can deal with two different types of fuel. For Magnox fuel, which is the earliest power stations we have and the ones that BNFL own, those power stations use a type of fuel, it is called Magnox fuel, that is the name of the stations, and that fuel corrodes when it is taken—well, there is one power station that this is not true for. But, most of the power stations, you take the fuel out of the power station, where it is dry, and you have to take it through a wet pond, it was just designed that way, and once the fuel is wet it will corrode over a period of time, not in five minutes, but certainly over a period of a few years, and as it corrodes it becomes less safe. And so the whole cycle for Magnox includes reprocessing as the way of dissolving up that fuel and making it into a much safer form.

  77. So, irrespective of cost, and all sorts of things, you have to do it from a safety issue?
  (Mr Bonser) Yes, for Magnox fuel.

  78. And the others?
  (Mr Bonser) Now, for AGR and PWR fuel, that fuel does not corrode in the same way, and British Energy will be able to tell you much better the technicalities of that, but it does not corrode in the same way, and there you can store, and many countries do store, that type of fuel, long term, without reprocessing. The fact is, in this country, we did go down the reprocessing route, we took decisions and built an infrastructure in order to reprocess that fuel, and many of the other facilities as well, which I have talked about before, and that infrastructure is there and is there to support that reprocessing.

  79. So are we continuing reprocessing because of inertia, because we have built THORP and we have got to carry on doing it?
  (Mr Bonser) In part; in part that must be right. But, also, as I have mentioned before, this material that is separated out is a very useful energy source, the plutonium particularly I am talking about, and, having got the facilities, and so on, you can separate and have that material available for future generations.

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