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

Memorandum submitted by Friends of the Earth



  In a nuclear reactor heavy metals are split open to produce fiercely radioactive "fission products". In addition, plutonium, the raw material for many nuclear weapons is also created. In the early days of the nuclear industry there was some feeling that revenue could be made from these materials—but now it is widely recognised that they are a liability. Vast sums of money need to be spent to stop them coming into contact with people and initiating cancer. These materials are nuclear wastes.

  In the past, it was believed that the waste materials could simply be disposed of by burying them deep underground. However, when the science of this proposal was put to the test, at the Nirex Inquiry, in 1995, it failed. Waste policy is now in disarray and the only logical response is to limit waste production by phasing out nuclear power and to refocus the nuclear industry to manage existing waste.

  Far from arguing for this phase-out, DEFRA, in its consultation paper "Managing Radioactive Waste Safely" merely invokes discussion around the status quo. Whilst the calls for dialogue are to be welcomed—they do not signal serious refocusing of the nuclear industry. Neither have they been time-tabled to recognise the urgency with which the nuclear industry must change direction.

  In addition to the need to stop increasing the amount of radioactive waste by continuing to run nuclear reactors, the hazard posed by existing nuclear waste must be minimised. Obtusely, BNFL in Cumbria do the opposite. BNFL, in its plutonium separation plants dissolve nuclear waste in hot nitric acid creating a mobile liquid solution of fission products that could cause an accident forty times worse than Chernobyl.[3] The DEFRA consultation document consideration of hazard simply omits any reference to the liquid fission product hazard. This is grossly irresponsible.

  BNFL separates plutonium from fission products making it much more vulnerable to theft. This plutonium stockpile represents the most serious threat. It is to be welcomed that the consultation document has finally put the management of separated plutonium onto the Government's agenda. However, the failure to register the question of continued plutonium separation as one relevant for debate further demonstrates the narrowness of the consultation.


  The organisational structure of the present-day waste management system derives from the 1976 "Flowers" committee report from the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution (RCEP).[4] The commission concluded:

    "We should not rely for energy supply on a process that produces such a hazardous substance as plutonium unless there is no reasonable alternative."[5]

    "There should be no commitment to a large programme of nuclear fission power until it has been demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt that a method exists to ensure the safe containment of long-lived highly radioactive wastes for the indefinite future."[6]

  Over twenty years later in March 1997 the Secretary of State for the Environment rejected the nuclear industry's application for a Rock Characterisation Facility, a precursor to a deep waste repository for radioactive wastes. Quite apart from the particularly poor characteristics of the Sellafield site favoured by the industry, the proposal was also rejected on the basis of the poor science. The decision letter said the Secretary of State "remains concerned about the scientific uncertainties and technical deficiencies in the proposals presented by Nirex (the nuclear industry waste management body), which would also justify refusal of this appeal".[7] This means that the RCEP requirement that the problems of plutonium and high level waste should be sorted out before new-build is considered has not been met.

  Further new build is currently the subject of a parallel Energy Review by the Cabinet Office's Performance and Innovation Unit. The fact that the DEFRA consultation doesn't mention the implications of the RCF decision on new build demonstrates a fundamental weakness in the document in that it fails to address the cause of the problem.

  Given the fundamental problems associated with long-term waste management and thus the inevitable burden that we place on future generations by producing radioactive wastes, the Government must make a commitment to build no new nuclear power stations and to phase out existing stations as soon as possible.


  The infrastructure of the Sellafield plutonium separation site, now owned by BNFL, was set up following the Second World War to provide plutonium for nuclear weapons. The technology was then applied to the plutonium from nuclear power stations, the B205[8] and THORP reprocessing plants. It was argued that plutonium could be used in specially designed reactors ("fast breeder reactors"), but despite forty years and £4 billion of research[9], these reactors have proven a spectacular failure and their development has been abandoned save in the former Soviet bloc.

  Despite this BNFL has continued to separate out plutonium. In 1990 Britain's plutonium stockpile was estimated at just under 30 tonnes.[10] It has doubled to 60 tonnes in just 10 years[11] and is set to reach 100 tonnes by 2010.[12] British Energy in its evidence to DEFRA state:

    "If Government policy deemed plutonium as a waste requiring treatment on an early timescale, it would undermine still further the rationale for reprocessing ie that it results in the production of potentially re-useable nuclear fuel. In such a situation it would be nonsensical for BE to continue with reprocessing and the creation of a further liability."[13]

  Although this reference in included, in the consultation its implications are not drawn out. As well as producing separated plutonium, reprocessing is responsible for 70 per cent of the intermediate level waste that is generated in the UK.[14] It has central implications for the UK waste management burden and its omission from the list of issues on which the Government seeks opinions is extraordinary.

  Given the inherent dangers associated with separated plutonium and the liquid high level waste generated as a bi-product of the production process, plutonium separation should be out as a matter of urgency.


  The UK stockpile of plutonium is over sixty tonnes.[15] It takes less than ten kilograms of his material to make a nuclear bomb.[16] In April 2001. Fred Barker and Mike Sadnicki both members of the Radioactive Waste Management Advisory Committee (RWMAC) published a 230 page report funded by the American "MacArthur Foundation.[17] This report, which considers in detail the management strategy for separated plutonium, is not referred to in the consultation document. Barker and Sadnicki evaluate the options for producing a plutonium waste form through incorporating the plutonium with high level wastes compared to using it in a nuclear reactor (also to produce a waste form). They concluded that, even allowing for the revenue that would be generated from electricity production, the reactor route is more expensive than the waste incorporation route.[18]

  Straight treatment of plutonium with liquid high level waste would be an obstacle to the urgent need to treat the liquid high level waste stocks.[19] Therefore Barker and Sadnicki instead recommend the use of the Sellafield MOX Plant to produce a plutonium waste form—either low spec MOX[20] (mixed oxide) or specially designed ceramic—which is treated to increase its proliferation resistance. The four treatment routes considered are all based on the use of the "Transtor" container. This container is bulky and so in itself limits the proliferation threat, but only to a limited degree. Further resistance is achieved by adding spent AGR fuel which contains fission products (high level waste) and/or by using the ceramic route rather than the low spec MOX route. The advantage of the ceramic is that it would be specially designed to make plutonium separation difficult.[21]

  These options are not referred to by the DEFRA report which suggests either a deep level of ignorance or a politically-motivated omission. Either way the public is not being well served over this matter of such great importance.

  Current evidence indicates that it is out of the question that plutonium would become a valuable resource. In this sense its designation as waste is only a matter of time. However, given the proliferation threat presented by the stockpile, it is imperative that DEFRA relinquishes its disingenuous approach and instigates the action necessary to treat the plutonium as a material that has no use and must be managed in order to minimise the threat that it presents.


  MOX fuel is an expensive and dangerous fig leaf for the incredibly hazardous process of plutonium separation (reprocessing). It introduces profound nuclear proliferation risks and thus Friends of the Earth is fundamentally opposed to the operation of MOX plants.

  The Sellafield MOX Plant should not be commissioned for MOX production, but instead should be converted for plutonium treatment to reduce—rather than increase—the proliferation risk it presents.


  The import of radioactive wastes is referred to on page 36 of the consultation document where it is stated:

    "It is a Government requirement that the products and wastes produced from this work (the import and chemical treatment of spent nuclear fuel) are returned to the country of origin. This work does not therefore have any direct impact on the management of UK radioactive wastes."[22]

  This is untrue.

    (i)  Low level radioactive waste arising from the chemical treatment (plutonium separation) of spent nuclear fuel at Sellafield in Cumbria is sent to the nearby Drigg facility for burial.[23]

    (ii)  The plutonium from the THORP plutonium separation plant is due to be sent to the Sellafield MOX Plant. Operation of this facility would increase plutonium contaminated waste arisings for the Sellafield site by roughly one third.[24] None of this overseas derived plutonium waste would be returned to the customers.[25]

    (iii)  The consultation document itself refers to the possibility that intermediate level waste derived from plutonium separation work would be retained in the UK.[26]

  It is deeply troubling inaccurate information has been presented on such an important matter. Friends of the Earth's call for an end to plutonium separation includes within it a call for an end to the import of used nuclear fuel for this reprocessing work.

  The future of the nuclear industry is in the multi-billion international cleanup market.


  In 1976 a commitment was made by BNFL that the nuclear wastes it imported would be returned. At paragraph 3.8 of the DEFRA document[27] the possibility of modifying this commitment through calculation of amounts of wastes that are radiologically equal is mooted.

  In 1996 Friends of the Earth prepared evidence for the Radioactive Waste Management Advisory Committee on the international shipment of radioactive waste in the context of UK national policy. This evidence is available to the committee on request. Through analysis of the scientific documentation concerning groundwater return times, plutonium solubility and chlorine chemistry, it was concluded that:

    "It is presently not possible to calculate radiological equivalence. To date the calculations put forward by BNFL are not robust and would serve to underestimate intermediate level waste doses. As a result, far from being broadly neutral such an approach would be detrimental to the UK."[28]

  This conclusion was reached even before the conclusions of the Nirex Inquiry Inspector were available.

  DEFRA[29] call for views on the link between waste substitution and the availability of a long-term management strategy. Whilst this is to be welcomed, DEFRA do not appear to be aware of the more fundamental failings of the integrated toxic potential approach that is proposed.[30]

  The UK should not become the world's nuclear dustbin as it would under a substitution approach. Countries should take responsibility for their own nuclear wastes. Given that the UK is unable to implement a long-term approach for its own wastes it is of even greater importance that the Government adopts a genuine return of waste policy and refuses the suggestion of substitution.


  The consultation document starts with what is either a political intent to mislead or evidence of extraordinary complacency. The executive summary starts with the statement:

    "More than 10,000 tonnes of radioactive waste are safely stored in the UK"[31]

  This is not the case.

  In 1996 the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate (NII) published an audit of the management of solid wastes at BNFL sites.[32] The two volume report produced was a catalogue of neglect and incompetence which demonstrated that these wastes are in fact held in extremely hazardous forms.[33] There is a programme in hand to recover the wastes and stabilise them—but after five years it is not complete. This is despite the recommendation from NII that BNFL "increase the rate of progress of retrieval".[34] A similar set of problems was subsequently reported for sludges and liquid wastes at Sellafield.[35]

  More recently in October 2001 the New Scientist drew attention to the hazards associated with the liquid high level waste tanks also at Sellafield. There are 21 concrete and steel tanks containing more that 1,500 cubic metres of high level liquid wastes.[36] If a plane were to crash into these it would release enough radioactivity to cause two million deaths.[37] The problems associated with the Sellafield tanks have also been mentioned in work carried out for the European Parliament.[38]

  The outlook for on-site employment at Sellafield is one of steady long-term decline. Not even scenarios which assume additional reprocessing activities reverse this trend.[39] Research carried out for Friends of the Earth has shown that for German plutonium separation contracts alone £400 million could be freed up by shifting from reprocessing to storage.[40] Similar sums are available for Japanese contracts. This money should be used by BNFL to invest in developing their already considerable safe waste management, on-site storage decommissioning and clean-up capacity. That is where the market demand is—not in reprocessing. Overall there is a $300 billion international clean-up market in which Friends of the Earth believes BNFL could play a cutting edge role. Already NII is driving forward some leading work in the development of passive safety. DEFRA do not give an indication of the important economic initiatives that could be taken to achieve a real contribution to safety. It is essential that this is done—rather that attempting to perpetuate the myth that nuclear wastes are presently safely stored.


  On 17 March 1997 the Secretary of State rejected Nirex's application for a Rock Characterisation Facility (RCF) a precursor to a Deep Waste Repository (DWR). Quite apart from the site issues related to the particularly poor characteristics of the Sellafield site chosen by Nirex as their favoured site, the Nirex proposal was also rejected on the basis of the poor science of the Nirex case. The decision letter stated:

    "Further the Secretary of State also remains concerned about the scientific uncertainties and technical deficiencies in the proposals presented by Nirex, which would also justify refusal of this appeal."[41]

  In terms of developing a way forward, the most important point to recognise is that the rejection was not simply the rejection of a poor site, but instead reflected deeply seated generic problems with the proposal that will affect waste management options at any site. It is now appropriate to recognise that the long held commitment to early deep disposal has irrevocably broken down and that proposals for interim surface based approaches must be put in hand. The lesson of the Nirex decision is that the whole concept of deep-level irretrievable disposal of nuclear waste is flawed. Waste should be held in storage as we do not have sufficient knowledge to limit the quantity of radionuclides that could return to contaminate local populations, if deep-level disposal is undertaken. The events of September 11 highlight the fact that surface based approaches also have their problems. This demonstrates at a fundamental level the fact that further production of nuclear materials should cease as soon as possible.

  The generic problems associated with disposal relate to the lack of sufficient scientific understanding of the quantity of radionuclides that would be released from a repository. The Inspector at the RCF Inquiry noted that such deficiencies: "relate(s) to the practicability of the UK deep disposal concept."[42] In particular the Inspector drew attention to:

    "the profound novelty and complexity of the deep disposal, multi-barrier concept.[43]

  These uncertainties cover scientific problems in all areas. The Assessor noted:

    "There is a general need for the Nirex science programme to be advanced on all fronts"[44]

    "new data are required in almost all areas of work pursued to date"[45]

  In reference to the March 1997 decision, DEFRA state:

    "This decision called into question whether at that time an underground repository for the disposal of radioactive wastes could be scientifically justified or publically acceptable. This led to a completely new look at radioactive waste management policy in the UK."[46]

  This frankness is welcomed as is the intention by Government to open up a wide ranging debate on this important topic.

September 11

  The events of September 11 have spotlighted the vulnerability of nuclear facilities to similar attacks. Particularly vulnerable are plutonium stores, liquid high level waste stores and nuclear reactors. In addition untreated (raw) intermediate level wastes present particular concerns. All of these waste forms must be treated to reduce the risk that they present from either deliberate or accidental impact from aeroplanes. At the British Nuclear Energy Society conference on 7 November 2001, Friends of the Earth announced that they were undertaking an internal review of our position on above-ground storage given the threat of deliberate attack.

  As part of this review we will be seeking urgent evidence from the nuclear industry that it is taking the necessary steps—ie waste conditioning and nuclear phase-out to minimize the threat presented by above ground facilities. In addition as part of the DEFRA waste review the industry must input data on the relative risks presented by above ground storage and underground disposal. Underground disposal carries the risk of that the inevitable release of radioactivity—eventually back to the human environment—will be far higher than foreseen. The advantage of storage is that it allows for repair if such a problem were to arise, but it carries with it the risk of collision and dispersion through that route.

  Nirex are researching so-called "phased-disposal" which has the advantage that it incorporates a period of storage and thus remediation options whilst avoiding the collision risk because the waste is held underground. However the storage period is only planned to be for two hundred or so years and so it does not seriously address the problems associated with disposal. All of these issues must be addressed as part of the Government's consultation exercise.


  Friends of the Earth welcome the initiatives that have been taken by Nirex to incorporate public input[47] through transparency and dialogue following the 1997 RCF decision and the 2000 Nirex Internal Inquiry.[48] These include stakeholder meetings on retrievability, focus group meetings on partitioning and transmutation and the funding of Lancaster University on many projects concerning the involvement of the general public.[49] Given the severe shock dealt to Nirex by the Nirex Inquiry decision the Company has taken far reaching measures to learn from the past and put in hand changes that are designed to make it more responsive to ethical and societal needs. How far it can go along this route whilst constrained by its current ownership remains to be seen.

  In contrast Friends of the Earth experience of the BNFL stakeholder dialogue process, is that BNFL has shown little regard for the input of its participants. This is signalled by its determination to use UK plutonium in MOX fuel[50] and its proposal to build up to twenty new nuclear power stations in Britain.[51] There was no real interest from BNFL in other solutions to problems. This created a bad feeling which contaminated the whole process and gave the feeling that it was just a cynical PR exercise on the part of BNFL.

  Friends of the Earth is disappointed that DEFRA has not taken the initiative to instigate a wider public debate about radioactive waste management and a broader response to the current consultation. The decision to publish the document on 12 September, just one day after attack on the World Trade Centre, suggests that DEFRA are willing to see a tightly circumscribed debate with a low level of public involvement. Furthermore the reference in the consultation document and the Press Release[52] to a wish list of techniques to achieve public involvement carries very little weight if these techniques are not actually used. It is already two months into the consultation, the Christmas break is approaching and to date no plans have been announced concerning how DEFRA intend to promote a wider debate. Informal approaches have been made with a view to further meetings, but it appears that DEFRA are only in the very early stages of developing their ideas and it seems very unlikely that a wider public debate will be started by the March 2002 deadline.


  The Flowers report recommended that an independent[53] body be set up to dispose of nuclear waste. However, in 1982 when the "Nuclear Industry Radioactive Waste Executive" (Nirex) was set up the advice of the RCEP was ignored and Nirex's shareholders are all drawn either from the nuclear industry or its Government sponsoring body. This failing has caused a fundamental lack of appreciation of the purpose of a long-term waste management body. Nirex should not be there to gloss over the difficulties associated with radioactive waste management. It should develop an ethical and scientifically rigorous approach to the enormous challenge presented by long-lived nuclear wastes. Given the intrinsic conflicts of interest that arise from industry ownership of Nirex it is imperative that the organisation is made independent. However, under the polluter pays principle the industry should continue to fund long-term waste management.

  In an amendment to the DEFRA timetable, Nirex should be made independent at the earliest possible opportunity in order to give a focus for the DEFRA "Programme for Action".[54] This should be more than just a funding arrangement but should also include the incorporation of further Board members and staff from an environmental background to take a more rigorous approach to the issues associated with the radionuclide inventory. Currently Nirex are neutral on the issue of new build. This makes no sense as the irradiation of more fuel would necessarily add to the amount of waste that has to be managed and therefore the radionuclide source term which is utilised in the repository performance assessment.[55] Appropriately strengthened, and independent Nirex would take a more logical position on new build and interrogate in far more depth the alternative options for waste management.


  Decommissioning policy in the UK displays the same complacency that characterises the whole of nuclear waste management policy. On 4 October 2001 the owners of Tokai-Mura, a Japanese Magnox reactor, announced their plan to decommission the reactor within seventeen years.[56] DEFRA do not report this important development in their document and appear to be unaware of it even though it has important implications for the UK.

  Given the dangers associated with untreated waste, it is imperative that raw wastes are conditioned to a passively safe form as soon as possible. This means that the UK should adopt the Japanese approach of early decommissioning as part of waste strategy.


  On 12 September the Environment Minister Michael Meacher said that the legacy of a wrong decision concerning radioactive waste could be "catastrophic".[57] Wrong decisions have already been made and severe vulnerabilities will remain unless and until Government take firm action to eradicate the complacency of the past and instigate policies appropriate to the dangers that nuclear wastes present. This means a phase-out of reprocessing and existing reactors and the rejection of plans to build new reactors.

  Whilst further research is carried out into the optimum longer term approach radioactive waste should urgently be treated to minimise the hazard that it presents and then placed in interim stores. There is an enormous international market in this field and the nuclear industry should refocus from electricity generation to radioactive waste management in order to achieve reliable future employment.

  Whilst the DEFRA document does contain important initiatives, namely the commitment to dialogue and the recognition of plutonium as a problem that requires serious attention, it repeatedly demonstrates a lack of understanding and knowledge of the problem at hand. This is a matter of deep concern as the Government will be unable to facilitate the essential consensus building without itself developing a real appreciation of the difficulties faced.

Friends of the Earth

November 2001

3   "Possible Toxic Effects from the Nuclear Reprocessing Plants at Sellafield (UK) and Cap de la Hague (France)" STOA, August 2001, p 38. Back

4   "Nuclear Power and the Environment" Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution (1976) Chairman: Sir Brian Flowers. Back

5   RECP (1976) p 204. Back

6   RCEP (1976) p 202. Back

7   Styche PC, (Authorised by the Secretary of State for the Environment to sign in that behalf) Government Office for the North West, 17 March 1997, para 9. Back

8   B204 was also used for a short period for oxide fuel. Back

9   "The Department of Energy's Nuclear R&D Programmes" Department of Energy August 1991, p 60. Back

10   Energy Committee (1990) 4 July 1990 vol I p(xix). Back

11   DEFRA (2001) p 32. Back

12   "Management of Separated Plutonium" Royal Society (1998) Summary. Back

13   DEFRA (2001) p 33. Back

14   "The 1998 United Kingdom Radioactive Waste Inventory" Nirex, DETR DETR/RAS/99.009, Main Report, p 41. Back

15   DEFRA (2001) p 30. Back

16   Hinton et al "Proliferation Vulnerability Red Team Report" Sandia National Laboratories et al, SAND97-8203, (1996) p 4-1. Back

17   Barker F and Sadnicki M "The Disposition of Civil Plutonium in the UK" (2001). Back

18   Barker and Sadnicki (2001) p (xi). Back

19   Barker and Sadnicki (2001) p 229. Back

20   Barker and Sadnicki (2001) p 81. Back

21   Barker and Sadnicki (2001) p 228. Back

22   DEFRA (2001) p 36. Back

23   There is no LLW store for overseas LLW due to be returned. DEFRA is dishonest on this point. (see DEFRA (2001) para 3.8 p 25). Back

24   "Document Containing the Agency's Proposed Decision on the Justification for the Plutonium Commissioning and Full Operation of the Mixed Oxide Fuel Plant" Environment Agency, (1998) Executive Summary, p 7. Back

25   Environment Agency (1988) p A4.20. Back

26   DEFRA (2001) p 25. Back

27   DEFRA (2001) p 25. Back

28   Western R E J "The International Shipment of Radioactive Waste in the Context of UK National Policy." Friends of the Earth's response to the RWMAC Consultation. (1996) pp 8-9. Back

29   DEFRA (2001) p 26. Back

30   DEFRA (2001) p 25. Back

31   DEFRA (2001) p 7. Back

32   "The Management of Solid Radioactive Waste at Sellafield and Drigg" NII (1996). Back

33   See for example photographs at the back of NII (1996) Volume One which indicate that special radiation suits were required by the audit team. p 35. Back

34   NII (1996) Vol 1, p 21. Back

35   "The Management of Accumulated Radioactive Liquid Waste and Sludges at BNFL Sellafield" NII (NW/11/97-250-C-AZLJ). Back

36   Edwards R "The Nightmare Scenario" New Scientist, 13 October 2001 p 10. Back

37   New Scientist (2001), p 11. Back

38   Schneider M et al, "Possible Toxic Effects from the Nuclear Processing Plants at Sellafield (UK) and Cap de la Hague (France)" Scientific and Technological Option Assessment Programme (2001) p 38. Back

39   Samuel J "West Cumbria: Socio-economic Study" ERM (2001) pp (iv), 65. Back

40   Sadnicki M, Barker F and Mackerron G (1999) "Thorp: the case for contract renegotiation" Friends of the Earth. Back

41   Styche P C "Letter to David Brown Esq Director (Cumbria) United Kingdom Nirex Ltd" 17 March 1997, p 13. Back

42   McDonald C S "Cumbria County Council Appeal by United Kingdom Nirex Limited" (1996) 6C.176. Back

43   McDonald (1996) 6C.151. Back

44   Knipe C V "Cumbria County Council Appeal by United Kingdom Nirex Limited Assessor's Report" (1996) C.144. Back

45   Knipe (1996) F.5. Back

46   DEFRA (2001) p 9. Back

47   DEFRA (2001) p 47. Back

48   Murray C et al "Reports on the Nirex Internal Inquiry January-December 2000" Nirex (2001). Back

49   Dr Rachel Western, Friends of the Earth Nuclear Researcher, is also a Research Associate at Lancaster University working as a consultant to Nirex on projects associated with access to scientific information. Back

50   DEFRA (2001) p 33. Back

51   P. Brown "UK needs another 20 nuclear stations" The Guardian, 7 September 2001. Back

52   "Government Looks For Public Consensus on Managing Radioactive Waste" DEFRA 12 September 2001, p 1. Back

53   RCEP (1976) p 163. Back

54   DEFRA (2001) p 56. Back

55   DEFRA (2001) p 30. Back

56   E-mail from Jamie Woolley to [email protected] 22 October 2001. Back

57   "Government Looks for Public Consensus on Managing Radioactive Waste" DEFRA News Release 12 September 2001, p 2. Back

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