Select Committee on Science and Technology Third Report


APPENDIX 4

NOTES ON OVERSEAS VISITS

Members of the Committee made visits to the United States and Canada 14-23 May; Sweden 22-24 June; and France 20-23 October. These countries have significant waste management programmes which, although different from our own, provide a good insight into some alternative approaches. We learned much from our meetings and the establishments we saw. At all locations our hosts were exceedingly helpful and hospitable. We would like to reiterate our thanks to all involved for their assistance.

The conclusions we drew from our visits are incorporated in the body of our report. What follows are notes on some aspects of the meetings at each location.

Note of visits to US and Canada
14-23 May 1998

Members present: Lord Tombs (Chairman), Lord Craig of Radley, Lord Flowers and Lord Howie of Troon, accompanied by the Clerk.

Summary

  The Committee held meetings with Federal Agencies and others in Washington and Ottawa, visited the WIPP disposal site at Carlsbad, New Mexico, the proposed spent fuel repository at Yucca Mountain, Nevada, and the rock characterisation facility at Whiteshell, Manitoba.

  Meetings with the Federal Agencies in Washington provided useful background for the subsequent visits. At WIPP, a facility started in 1988 and where $2 billion has been spent to date, they were ready to take their first delivery of waste for disposal. There may be delays due to legal action but both on-site and in Washington the majority view was that the facility would become operational shortly. As at February 1999 it had not. The Yucca Mountain project was clearly a lot further from operational status: the demonstration of viability was the next milestone on their schedule. The separate research groups, mostly from DoE national laboratories, did not demonstrate the same single-minded sense of purpose apparent at WIPP.

  The visit to Whiteshell showed an apparently very sound and scientific approach to rock characterisation. But the level of activity was low and the need for further generic study of rock in the absence of any decision to proceed towards a final repository seemed in doubt. The meetings in Ottawa tended to confirm these doubts: Canada is in the process of re-evaluating its disposal plans in the context of an overall review of energy (primarily electricity) and environmental policy.

Washington

Non Governmental Organisations

  Mr Michael Marriotte, Nuclear Information and Resource Service, was the lead speaker for the NGOs. He opened by saying that in the near term the risks from transportation of nuclear waste outweighed the benefits of centralised waste disposal. There was no need for a central store/repository. The problems of waste had been with us for less than 60 years and would be with us for many centuries. Contaminated sites would take more than two generations to clear. There was no crisis. He added that the last successful order for civil nuclear power had been in 1973 and none was likely in the foreseeable future.

  Mr Marc Fioravanti, The Institute for Energy and Environment Research, spoke in favour of a revised classification system, as the US system was not relevant to the long-term hazard. Although he acknowledged it was probably politically unacceptable, he thought, technically, it was worth looking at sea-bed disposal. What was needed now was much more emphasis on research and an examination of all the options. Ms Maureen Eldridge, Alliance for Nuclear Accountability, pointed out that although there had been research on technical solutions nobody had looked at the social/equity issues: they had just looked at Yucca Mountain. The consensus was that responsibility for nuclear waste should be taken from US DoE and given to a new independent agency responsible solely for disposal.

  

In a discussion of the prospects for WIPP, Mr Auke Piersma, Public Citizen, and the other representatives made the point that it was difficult to take legal cases based on technical issues, where the courts invariably deferred to Government experts, but cases could be won on procedural issues. They would be litigating against the opening of WIPP and the shipment of waste from Idaho and elsewhere.

  Ms Eldridge was concerned that the environmental groups had not been able to open up a "natural dialogue" with Government. A forum was needed whereby concerned people could discuss what was technically sound and was fair and equitable. This would take many years to establish. The forum would be like those used for race relations, education and climate change. A new procedure was necessary to enable a comprehensive examination of all aspects. Perhaps a Presidential Commission might be appropriate.

US Nuclear Regulatory Commission

Dr John Greeves gave a presentation on the legal background to the Commission's role in the regulation of waste. Congress had required the Agency to undertake rulemaking. The long-term requirement was well defined but the interim measures were politically charged. WIPP had been decided following a scientific evaluation but Yucca Mountain was chosen for high level/transuranic waste by Congress.

  The Agency had 40 people based in Washington and around 50 at the Southern Research Institute. NRC was not aware of any new proposals for re-classification of waste, but there had been many such proposals over the last decade. In practice "greater than class C" low level waste was like UK intermediate level waste.

  Twenty per cent of US waste is government owned but the creation of a repository is regarded by NRC as a public good which is rightly paid for by Government. The risk criteria "one in a million" per year would be difficult for Yucca Mountain - as it would for oil production platforms and fossil fuel burning. (Coal ash is treated as a "technologically enhanced natural material" and exempt from the requirements of nuclear waste disposal.) Some DoE sites, eg Hanford, have severe problems but DoE is "self-regulating". Approximately 50 tonnes of weapon grade plutonium may be introduced into the commercial fuel cycle as MOX, but in general the policy was not to pursue this approach or to undertake reprocessing. In practice, a third of the plutonium did not lend itself to incorporation in MOX in any case.

  The NRC was optimistic that, after minor legal skirmishes, WIPP would open. However, transportation would continue to create difficulties. If Yucca Mountain failed "we start over", ie NRC was not considering alternative sites. At this time more than two thirds of the House of Representatives were in favour of the Yucca Mountain site but the proposal faced implacable opposition from the Nevada State delegation.

  The NRC showed some concern that EPA might promulgate a standard for ground water which would in effect rule out Yucca Mountain as a disposal site. There would be public hearings on these rules and the distance from the site at which they should be applied.

Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board

  The Board had been created by Congress specifically to advise on the Yucca Mountain project. It met three or four times a year in public, had a staff of 15 - half of whom were technically qualified - who organised various ad-hoc sub-committee meetings primarily on technical issues. The Board was appointed by the President, but for terms which straddled presidential elections, and members were nominated on advice from the National Academy. The Board was regarded as independent - not political. It was purely advisory and had no executive powers.

  The Attorney General for the State of Nevada and the congressional delegation were strongly opposed to the Yucca Mountain site and EPA, if it promulgated a health based standard comparable to the drinking water standard, would stop the project. But science was only part of the issue, public acceptability was crucial.

In a discussion of the role of the public it was pointed out that 95 per cent were not active participants but, in this case, the passive majority were content to follow the lead of the environmental end of the spectrum, not the Government or the industrial scientists. DoE had awoken too late to the importance of the issues of public perception. The role of Congress was to integrate these views of the public but whereas Congress took an active role in some environmental issues this was not one.

US Department of Energy

  Jim Owendoff, Program Director, WIPP described DoE's work on waste treatment since the early 50s. They had been working on WIPP for over 23 years and, although there would undoubtedly be Federal and State legal suits, he was optimistic that it would become operational shortly.

Discussing work on acceptability issues, Ernest Moniz, Under Secretary said the Department had not adopted a high national profile. The New Mexico State Delegation supported WIPP but that from Nevada was very hostile towards Yucca Mountain. The Department was not considering any alternative to Yucca Mountain unless the site was ruled out: the legislation passed by Congress in 1987 to establish Yucca Mountain as the repository stated that DoE may not search for any other site. Storage, currently designed for 100 years, could be extended to, say, 200+ during which period there might be a "monitored repository" - but ultimately closed disposal was the objective. The problem was not a technical but a social one. The "interested public" was very negative towards nuclear power and a waste repository in particular.

  The Department undertook some research on waste minimisation and transmutation but although these techniques might postpone the need for a repository, but they could not replace it. Transmutation would be a good programme for international collaboration. If it could be shown to work it would help with the public perception and may reduce the long timescale of disposal, but was not a solution to the present problem.

New Mexico

Waste Isolation Pilot Plant

  George Dials, the DoE Area Office Manager argued that surface storage of waste was unsatisfactory in that natural hazards, weather (in particular tornadoes) could lead to dispersal - and there was always the need to prevent unauthorised access. In 1971 the Atomic Energy Commission (a predecessor of DoE's in the area) had selected a rock salt deposit in Kansas for disposal but this was technically inadequate. The present site was geologically vastly superior and was politically acceptable.

In the US many contaminated sites were close to centres of population, for example Rocky Flats was near the 3 million people of Denver. Within ten years of becoming operational, WIPP would reduce the number of people within 10 miles of such radiological hazards from 53 million to 4 million. In 1980 they had a congressional mandate to "study the problem" but the study was now over and the objective was to become operational. Waste would be transported from almost every State of the Union: traffic accidents were the greatest risks.

In commenting on the significance of transportation, Mr Dials observed that relative to leaving waste where it was - moving it was better. He noted that in Texas the civil authorities had decided that the risks from transportation were so small that no special action was needed. However, in Santa Fey concerns had resulted in funds to build a by-pass. Concerning the legal challenges to WIPP, Mr Dials was confident: the EPA had approached the WIPP rule-making process in the knowledge that they would be sued. He was certain the rules would withstand the legal challenges.

  

Touring the site itself revealed a very business-like approach to construction. Tests had already been undertaken on the collapse of salt caverns. The Committee saw the way the roof bowed as caverns opened earlier tended to refill. The site created the impression that it would shortly be an operational facility where the day-to-day business would be the disposal of waste.

Nevada

The Yucca Mountain Project

Mr Alan Benson, Director of Institutional Affairs, provided an introduction to the Yucca Mountain project. Work had begun in the early 70s with the decision of Congress. It had created very strong local opposition. The area had been subject to earthquakes and prior to that was a volcanic region. But they have found nothing to indicate that it was unsuitable for disposal. Congress had offered Nevada $100 million per annum but this had been rejected. Now there was a congressional enquiry into the way monies had been spent, reflecting the political conflict over the choice of site. The Yucca Mountain site budget was $346 million per annum of which $194 million came from the Defence budget. The total cost of the project was likely to be around $9 billion if it proceeded to completion. However, even if the next stage was completed satisfactorily, the State of Nevada could submit to Congress a "Notice of disapproval" which would need a congressional vote to overturn.

The jurisdiction over the Yucca Mountain site was complicated. One third lay within the Nevada test site and the remainder was shared between the adjacent Air Force base and land belonging to the Bureau of Land Management. The site was chosen primarily for its remoteness and the technical facilities - those associated with a nuclear weapons test site. Underground we were shown the work which has just been completed on heat testing to simulate waste fuel rods in situ. No radiation tests had been undertaken and the effects of exposure of rock, eg expansion, had not been determined. Although we were 400m above the water table (and a similar distance below the surface) water was present in the rocks and dripped from the ceiling when it was heated.

  

Winnipeg

Whiteshell Laboratories

The Committee was welcomed by Dr Ken Dormuth, Director of AECL's Environmental Studies, who gave us a presentation on the work at the site. CANDU fuel bundles are currently stored at generating site. There are about 1.3 million of them which, assuming no further power stations are built, would rise to about 3.6 million. Most were in Ontario and spent a few years underwater after which they were dry stored. Current storage presented no problems, not even in the mind of the public. But such storage was unsatisfactory in that it depended on institutional controls, people to maintain security and undertake monitoring etc. Dr Dormuth observed that you cannot say something was "safe" if it relied on people to maintain security. There needed to be a stable society to operate a store that required maintenance or allowed retrievability. If there was any hint of a lack of such stability, economic collapse etc, then the first item to be cut would be expenditure on safe storage for future generations.

The Federal Government and the Ontario Provincial Government had established a nuclear fuel waste management programme to look at disposal. The legislation establishing this programme had defined disposal with no intention of retrievability. If a disposal site were left open security would create the major risks. In 1978 a site was chosen and a programme initiated but it was a demonstration site, not a permanent repository. Public acceptance was based on the assurance that it would not be the chosen site. Public debate over who would decide the location of a permanent store meant that in 1988 a public review was initiated. The present site had been intentionally located where faults were present to examine their effect. There was no information on any putative sites. Public concern over the "seal and walk away" concept had put the brakes on the programme.

AECL had been instructed to produce a generic environmental impact statement addressing safety and intergenerational equity issues. It was based on a "concept" not a specific site. However there were many potential sites within the Canadian shield. The Ministry of Natural Resources, to whom AECL as a Government Agency reported, had referred the matter to the Ministry of Environment which had appointed a review panel (the Seaborn Panel). The remit of this panel was to review the safety and acceptability of the concept along with "a broad range of nuclear fuel waste management options".

  

Dr Davidson described the hydrological research undertaken at Whiteshell. Again studies had been undertaken on a "hypothetical" location bearing in mind this was generic work not aimed at a specific site. They had demonstrated that their models were good at predicting reality but 'generic' research was no substitute for work at the actual proposed site. All hydrological work was now shelved pending a decision on the future of the laboratory.

  Dr Ohta described the underground research laboratory stating that the original concept was a precursor of a repository but this had quickly been changed to a generic laboratory. The site was finally chosen to enable fractures etc to be examined. There were around 70 people on the site, it had cost C$72 million for construction and the total spend was about C$160 million. Construction finished at the end 1980 and since then experiments on, for example, heat dissipation, engineering barriers, buffer stores and tunnel sealing had been undertaken.

  

Our visit to the site revealed a superbly clean underground laboratory. The walls were washed, there was hardly any dust present, the surface underfoot and lighting levels etc were all first rate. There were display boards to describe the experiments that had been undertaken: but there was little work in progress.

Ottawa

Atomic Energy Control Board

Dr Agnes Bishop, President, described the Board's role as an independent regulator. She quickly developed the theme that it is "public acceptance" that is the problem in regulating nuclear waste for most countries. She stated that even if you solve the disposal problem, the public perception of the transportation risks raised at least equal difficulties. Although AECB had no definition of what "acceptable to the Canadian public" meant, it had clear consultation procedures involving elected representatives and public hearings. There were no rules about who had to be consulted or even agreement about who might create such rules. Dr Bishop observed that if the politicians were affected by "public concern" - then such concern was real and relevant.

Dr Bishop observed that the environmental assessment of a future site required the answer to questions that were site specific - information that could only be obtained once work on the site had commenced. However these issues were perhaps secondary: politicians and policy-makers were deeply concerned by the public attitude and until all this was resolved there would be no disposal.

In discussing internationally shared facilities the general view around the table was that if one nation demonstrated that it could solve its own problems then there might be an opportunity for shared disposal facilities. But until then, an international solution was unrealistic.

Natural Resources Canada

A large round-table discussion was held at Natural Resources Canada chaired by Dan Whelan, Director General of the resources branch. Also present was Peter Brown, Head of Radioactive Waste Policy; Blair Seaborn, the Chairman of the report on Nuclear Fuel Waste Management; and Brennian Lloyd of the Public Interest Group, Northwatch. Mike Clelland, Assistant Deputy Minister, joined the meeting part way.

Dan Whelan opened the discussion by explaining that Ontario Hydro had closed seven reactors (leaving 12 remaining) because of management problems. Dr Whelan said that in Canada the public was no longer content that the industry could handle its problems - from proliferation to waste.

Peter Brown stated that in 1976 the Government adopted a report which examined the choices for waste management and concluded that phased geological disposal was the way forward. Granitic rocks in the Canadian Shield were the first choice with salt secondary, primarily because the United States was undertaking any necessary work. Both the Provinces and the Government had concluded that no disposal could proceed until the concept was acceptable to the public. In 1988 AECL came forward with a technical concept and a panel, subsequently known as the Seaborn Panel, was formed.

The Government would probably respond the Seaborn report in the Autumn. It may set up a new agency to deal specifically with waste, there would be a new Regulatory Control Act in place and Government would consult on the detailed regulations. The response to the Seaborn report would probably be associated with a wider review of the future of nuclear power and its role in energy production.

Richard Ferch described changes underway to the 1946 Atomic Energy Control Act. This set up the Atomic Energy Control Board with the power to grant licences and set conditions on radioactive substances. He emphasised the importance of public participation in defining requirements for the environmental assessment. There were legal requirements on participation and in practise a political need for public acceptance. The Government had set regulatory objectives for disposal facilities: risks below 10-6 to an individual with no credit taken for institutional controls etc. Mine tailings, for example, did not reach these criteria as institutional controls would be necessary indefinitely.

Dr Blair Seaborn described the work of the Waste Management and Disposal Concept Panel. The Panel's terms of reference had been to examine the concept of deep disposal in a rock repository. It was asked to comment on the safety and acceptability of this concept and provide advice on what policy Government should follow.

Dr Seaborn described the recommendation of the Panel that Government should issue a policy statement on nuclear waste management. This was to enable Canadians to know what the Government thought and what its objectives were. The public could then make its own conclusions on where a specific disposal site might fit in with that policy. The panel had recommended the establishment of a special agency to deal with nuclear fuel waste, improved consultation methods in general and a specific, comprehensive plan for public consultation on disposal - this would probably be the first job of the new agency. This agency should be operational within one year and able to make recommendations to Parliament in three.

Dr Seaborn made it clear that "sufficient" consultation should probably be measured in terms of time and intensity, ie a review period of a certain duration involving certain procedures. It was the role of Parliament to gauge the outcome of such consultation. Dr Seaborn commented that it was not meaningful to ask the public "Do you like this?", eg underground monitored retrievable storage, when the question was not asked with reference to anything else, ie, compared to surface storage etc. Although it was advocated by many environmentalists, there was no data on long-term surface storage. Until more work had been done on all these processes the Panel had recommended that a specific site should not be sought.

Dr Seaborn made it clear that failure to demonstrate acceptability was not synonymous with a clear indication of unacceptability. The onus was on the proposer to show that the proposed course of action was acceptable. The public had shown by its rejection of previous proposals what was not acceptable. Dr Seaborn indicated that far greater political involvement was needed, perhaps by a joint Senate House Committee.

A decision was needed within the next three years not on the "best" site but on one which was acceptable to the host community (however defined). The involvement of the "willing host" would have to be a continuing process with the community participating in local decisions. In practice the distinction between a deep repository and a retrievable store need not be great. But in the minds of the public it was probably significant. If retrievability existed the assumptions, the models etc, could be checked and, if found acceptable, then one could say, "Okay lets close it".

Brennian Lloyd made it clear that from her public interest perspective the linkage between nuclear power and nuclear waste was not worth attempting to unbundle. An energy strategy was needed which would provide emphasis on conservation and renewables. Nuclear energy was not a response to global warming.

Note of visit to Sweden
22-24 June 1998

Members present: Lord Tombs, Lord Craig of Radley, Lord Flowers, Baroness Hogg and Lord Jenkin of Roding, accompanied by the Clerk.

Summary

The Sub-Committee visited Sweden to meet Government officials in Stockholm and the facilities of SKB at Forsmark and Oskarshamn. A note of each meeting follows this section.

Sweden has had an underground repository for "operational waste", that is short-lived low and intermediate level waste, since 1988. There have been two attempts at selecting a site for a deep repository for spent fuel, so far without success. But the last attempt failed to win acceptance only narrowly and since then the Swedish Government has re-doubled its efforts to gain public support. SKB has completed generic research on rock characterisation and is undertaking the technology development, handling, and staff training necessary to run a repository.

The Swedish waste disposal problem is inherently more straightforward than our own. They have elected not to reprocess spent fuel and therefore do not have all the intermediate level waste or plutonium associated with that process. Co-disposal of short-lived waste, and disposal (not re-processing) of spent fuel is both technically and presentationally more easy than our own task. Their society is also different: allegations of secrecy seem rarely levelled at the industry and even less at the regulators. Part of the public confidence in the regulators may stem from the Swedish freedom of information laws. But even with a history of public confidence in the nuclear industry and its regulators, the absence of a nuclear waste legacy from past military programmes and a more straightforward waste management programme with its absence of reprocessing, Sweden has not yet gained public acceptance for a deep geological disposal facility.

Stockholm

Swedish Nuclear Power Inspectorate (SKI)

Mr Lars Högberg, Director General told us that in Sweden about 50% of electricity is generated by nuclear power, giving a per capita figure greater than the French. SKI regulated reactor safety, licensing etc, as well as non-proliferation matters. It had a staff of 111 and was responsible for ensuring the conformance with licensing conditions. The Swedish Radiation Protection Institute (SSI) enforced environment conditions, water standards etc.

The Swedish constitution in 1766 gave public access to the documents of "The Authority". In effect Sweden had the equivalent of a Freedom of Information Act giving individuals the right of access to regulators. SKI ensured that the nuclear industry published relevant documents.

Mr Högberg outlined the objectives for the safety of nuclear waste: future generations should not be asked to tolerate greater risks than the present, and responsibility for waste should be met by those who benefited from its creation. He saw the challenge under four headings: financial, scientific, technical and "democratic", ie, societal issues.

Financial issues were straightforward. The generators were required to contribute to a fund which was approximately Kr25 billion. The scientific and technical issues were also relatively clear. In the course of a regulatory review of the entire disposal process, projecting forward to a hundred thousand years, SKI had concluded that the radiological risk of disposal was similar to that in present rocks. There was what he called a "reasonable assurance of a tolerable risk facility", ie a satisfactory disposal facility could be built.

But societal issues were the challenge. These required first an acceptance of the safety criteria and the concept of "reasonable assurance"; then there had to be acceptance of the choice of system, ie, disposal, transmutation etc and finally there had to be acceptance of the site, the design and construction of the repository. These were national decisions which could not be taken solely at local level. "You cannot expect local communities to take national decisions".

Mr Högberg felt that SKI was trusted by the public who recognised that the scientific and technical capabilities of the organisation gave it independence. Regulations were developed in a step-wise manner which involved local elected officials.

Swedish Radiological Protection Institute (SSI)

  

Dr Karl-Magnus Larsson, Director described the work of SSI. In effect the organisation combined the roles of our NRPB, examining the science of all forms of radiation, electromagnetic, ultra-violet, etc. It was also responsible for environmental protection. In the case of a repository, SKI had the overall co-ordinating responsibility but SSI had responsibility for the radiological protection element. The decision on licensing rests with the Cabinet.

SSI had a specific mandate to inform the public and explain the issues of radiological protection. The public had developed now a better understanding of the issues and was "asking tougher questions" The organisation undertook its own research as well as commissioning work from others. Dr Larsson maintained that a decision on the need for monitoring of a repository could be taken around the time of prospective closure, ie, 2050/2060. At present there was no need to debate the issue, for interim storage would certainly have to be used for spent fuel.

National Co-ordinator for Nuclear Waste Disposal

  

Dr Olive Söderberg explained the role of the organisation. His post had been created for three years, he had a staff of three people and a budget of around Kr3 million. He set up discussion fora to enable local municipalities to understand the issues. It was the responsibility of industry to find a solution and implement it, but this obligation could not be fulfilled unless the public understood the need for a long-term repository. It was a question of creating understanding and with it trust: not just providing information.

Dr Söderberg's work was funded from the nuclear waste fund. He had established a "Nuclear Environment Assessment Forum" for nuclear waste disposal consisting of a committee of 25 people including regulators, industry, municipal officials, theologians etc. They looked at issues such as alternative strategies, siting and societal questions. Alternative strategies were examined from the ethical view point: what should be left to succeeding generations. Often these topics created difficulties for local politicians who were elected to protect their local community. Nonetheless, Dr Söderberg was confident that it would be possible to find a suitable and willing local community to accept a repository. Indeed there were plans to provide financial compensation to those who underwent a feasibility study but did not end up with a repository, ie, compensation for loss of benefit for those passed over in the competition to house the repository. But there were no financial inducements for hosting the repository.

Dr Söderberg reiterated the general consensus that public agreement had to be achieved before contemplating even a feasibility study. Initially volunteers had been sought throughout the nation but SKB concentrated on those near existing nuclear plants. It took one and a half years for Oskarshamn to decide it would accept a feasibility study and Government was looking for approximately five such studies. It takes a long time to gain support and the Mayor of Oskarshamn spent about 50% of his time on the issue of the repository. Public acceptance could not be rushed. There was an overwhelming lack of interest by local communities in nuclear issues until a site was proposed in their municipality. Only this created the awareness which was then perceived in local, not national terms.

Swedish National Council for Nuclear Waste (KASAM)

Dr Camilla Odhnoff is Chairperson of KASAM, an independent Committee established in 1985 to study issues relating to nuclear waste and decommissioning. It reports to the Minister of the Environment, who appoints the chairperson. This Committee is also widely drawn to include not only experts on the science and technology of radioactive waste disposal but also those with expertise in ethics, law and social sciences. Review of the research and development programmes for the repository is within its remit. KASAM produces its report on the state of knowledge every third year, although its existence is not widely known to the public.

Forsmark

Swedish Nuclear Fuel and Waste Management Company (SKB)

  

The Sub-Committee was welcomed by Dr Claes Thegerström who told us surveys showed that the public had confidence in the regulators and an even greater confidence in SKB. There was a general "trust in the system". This he put down in part to the transparency of the process and the Swedish equivalent of freedom of information. In Sweden there had been no adverse nuclear power events and confidence in the industry had recovered rapidly following the Chernobyl incident. He did not think the political decision to phase out nuclear power had any effect on the acceptability of a nuclear waste repository. However, at present there was no prospect of any new nuclear generating capacity being laid down.

Government had set clear responsibilities for SKB. It was an entity of the producers who were responsible for its funding. It undertook R&D and demonstration projects, was responsible for site selection, planning and construction of the repository and would be responsible for its commission and operation. In the end only the State can assume long term responsibilities for matters over hundreds or thousands of years but up to the point where no new safety measures are required, it was SKB's responsibility.

SKB had been formed in 1972 for joint uranium purchases by the power producers and by 1977 had become involved in waste treatment. The repository at Forsmark had been in operation since 1988. Dr Thegerström said that if you had a step-by-step process, and you were able to take a step backwards if needed at no unreasonable cost, you would, in the end, have sufficient confidence to walk away from a deep repository. However, the uncertainty about future social change was orders of magnitude greater than uncertainty about any technical issues.

Dr Tönis Papp, Research Director described the three-level hierarchy of safety: isolation; retention and dilution, which was the basis of their philosophy. Waste was put in steel containers encased in copper which were placed 300-500 metres below the surface in crystalline rock and back-filled with bentonite clay. The objective was to have a system which was not dependent on maintenance but which did not hinder monitoring.

In analysing safety, he said it was important to show the absolute maximum risk achieved rather than dealing with mean values and quoting a scatter band. To enhance the demonstrability of their systems they relied on existing naturally occurring materials, for example, items such as bronze cannons which had been on the sea bed for over three hundred years, or old copper coins.

Maximum container temperature was kept low, (80-100°) and materials were not operating far from their "normal" range, although the welding of the containers, particularly the steel case, was critical. It was also important to show that retrievability and monitoring did not reduce safety. Retrievability might be necessary even without a monitoring programme if, for example, more knowledge on welding technology suggested that the safety case had changed and material should best be removed. Dr Papp accepted one could question the behaviour of materials in the long-term, particularly under radiation, but this was the best situation based on present knowledge. If waste was left on the surface a breakdown in society was a far greater potential for harm.

Mr Claes Thegerström, Vice President said in 1992 SKB wanted to commence construction of a repository. They needed homogenous bedrock with no minerals which might prompt exploration, an industrial facility on the surface, good transportation (all reactors are on the coast and they have a specialised transport ship) and above all public acceptability. Two overriding principles were safety and acceptability - to get political support the politicians needed to have public support.

SKB would look for five to ten sites where they could undertake feasibility studies, select two from these, undertake a drilling programme which might last five years or so and then go through a formal licensing procedure for detailed site exploration at one. They had sufficient knowledge of Swedish geology to conclude that about half the country was suitable for a repository. At the first site they had examined, a referendum showed that approximately 70% were against, but the second site considered in 1977, showed 54% against with 44% in favour. SKB had spent about £1.1 million on this second site, but had now forsaken it in the light of the referendum. (The local community had in practice a right of veto.) The main lesson learned was to start early.

Mr Torsten Eng gave details of the current feasibility study. A main element in their discussions at local level had been the need for a national indication of support: hence the role of the national co-ordinator. The national environmental groups had stated that they were against geological disposal on principle: more research was needed, not a siting exercise. The Government concluded that as they did not agree to the principle they should leave the national co-ordinating group, which they did.

Mr Bo Kåwemark, Operational Manager of the Final Repository for short-lived waste (SFR) described the facility, 50 metres below the surface and one kilometre from shore under the Baltic Sea. Construction had started in 1983 and was completed by 1988. It had a capacity for 60k m3 of which 22 had been filled so far. About Kr740 million had been invested and the operating costs were around Kr25 million per year. If necessary the facility could be extended by building new silos: these were 25 metres in diameter and 50 metres high. Waste was laid down in 42 layers, back-filling every three with concrete. By 1996 they had emptied all interim storage in Sweden and the pace of filling had now slackened off to match disposal requirements until 2020.

Our visit underground revealed a very impressive facility: a tunnel with high-ceilings and a good road surface, well ventilated with all services installed to a very high quality. It was cool, quiet and damp (700m3 of water per minute were pumped out).

Oskarshamn

Canister Laboratory

Mr Henry Gustavsson is the site manager of the Canister Laboratory where development work is undertaken on the canisters to be used to hold the spent fuel rods in the repository. It is situated in a large building on the docks at Oskarshamn next to where the SKB transport ship, Sigyn, is moored. The facility, which cost Kr150 million, will be a demonstration model of the technology used to seal the containers, covering all aspects except the actual placement of active fuel rods. Cylinders are sealed, welded with an eb welder, examined by x-ray, ultrasonically tested and finally made ready for dispatch.

The Laboratory has already shown around over 500 members of the public and has produced a very good video. As with everything we saw, the standard of construction of the building, all accessories and fittings, was particularly high. Although referred to as a "laboratory" the facility was more like a pre-production prototype designed to test operational equipment and handling.

Äspö Hard Rock Laboratory

Dr Olle Olsson is Project Manager of the Äspö Hard Rock Laboratory. From the surface the Laboratory looks uncannily like a small modern Swedish farmhouse and associated barns. The majority of red-timbered buildings were built in 1994 although the "admin" building was constructed only one month ago. SKB had started work in Äspö in 1986 to extend their generic knowledge base. They needed a better performance assessment of rock characteristics and to develop and test the methods they might use for disposal. The facility would also be used for staff training. The Laboratory had been located near a power plant to make use of the infrastructure and a site with a variety of conditions (rock faults etc) chosen to evaluate techniques. SKB had given an undertaking to the local community that they would not put the final repository at this location.

There had been a pre-investigation phase, 1986-1990, and construction from 1990-1995. They had been operating since then. The Laboratory consisted of a road and shaft to 420 metres, constructed by drill and blast techniques, at which level they had used a tunnel-boring machine to open out the chambers. As at Whiteshell, we saw work on sealing technology, barriers and back-fill materials etc.

SKB had concluded that their models used for pre-construction evaluation had been confirmed, as had those for water flow etc. In general they spoke with great confidence of the results of the evaluation and had concluded that little further generic work was needed: future work should be site specific.

The overall impression was of a very large, well engineered facility where a full simulation of a repository, including materials handling problems etc, was underway. Like the Canister Laboratory, this facility was less a laboratory along the lines of, for example, Whiteshell, than a prototype disposal facility.

Central Interim Storage Facility for Spent Nuclear Fuel (CLAB)

Dr Per Grahn, Director of CLAB described the facility. Started in 1985, it had a capacity for 5,000 tonnes of spent fuel: there were plans to increase this by another 3,000 tonnes. They took about 80 casks per year and spent Kr75 million per annum. The construction costs in 1988 were Kr1.7 billion.

Our visit followed the process route starting with the receiving area where the dry fuel containers were unloaded into tanks at the surface. The system was designed to ensure that there was no cross-contamination between equipment handling the incoming casks and those on their way to storage: and defective casks could be easily isolated. Casks were then transported via a water filled lift to one of five main storage vaults underground. These were built on supports just above the bedrock as part of the earthquake protection measures. As with everything we had seen at SKB, the housekeeping and quality of the engineering was impeccable and all the facilities very modern.

Notes of visit to France
20-23 October 1998

Members present: Lord Tombs (Chairman), Lord Craig of Radley, Lord Howie of Troon, Baroness Platt of Writtle (Paris only) and the Earl of Cranbrook (Cherbourg only), accompanied by the Clerk.

Summary

The Committee visited the Cogema and Andra sites at Cap de la Hague on the Cotentin peninsula, followed by meetings with Government and with OECD officials in Paris. There was a marked contrast between the views expressed at the Industry Ministry (and Cogema) with those at the Environment Department. These must be resolved before the French disposal program can proceed in line with the '91 Law' but nobody we spoke to thought the disagreement would be resolved quickly.

Cap la Hague

Cogema

The Committee was welcomed by Monsieur Xavier Rincel, Chargé de Mission auprès de la Branch Combustibles et Recyclage, who provided a brief overview of the La Hague site. It is large, approximately 3 x 1 km, with two main reprocessing plants. The earlier, UP2 is used primarily to reprocess French spent fuel and the other,UP3, processes foreign material. The latter has contracts until the year 2010. M Rincel described the fuel cycle, emphasising the benefits of reprocessing as a waste management service. At La Hague they did not produce MOX which was fabricated at Pierrelatte. Our discussion concentrated on the more modern UP3 plant. This came into operation in 1989 with a nominal capacity of 800 tonnes.

Mme Veronique Decobert, Directeur Sureté Qualité, made a presentation on Cogema's environmental and health physics programmes. which concentrated on environmental pathways to man. It regarded "technical feasibility" and the "environmental impact" as the key factors of the OSPAR agreement.

EdF use MOX in 28 of their plants but only in the 900 MW reactors - not the later 1300 MW units. If used at 30% we were told this would create a balance between plutonium produced and plutonium burnt. If exports to Germany are increased there would be a net reduction in plutonium stocks and, in any case, the Melox plant could transfer all current plutonium production into MOX for French reactors. Cogema acknowledged that EdF had assumed that uranium would be cheaper than reprocessed MOX and that there were some economic doubts about reprocessing MOX, but EdF had "14 years to decide" the route for spent MOX fuel. There were long term reprocessing contracts with Germany, Japan, Switzerland and Belgium, but the current throughput of 1600 tonnes would be reduced by 30 % in three years' time. However at the end of current contracts all capital costs will have been met.

We were shown around the plant, following the process from the arrival of the casks, opening underwater, storage, sheering, vitrification and store. In appearance the plant was very similar to BNFL's THORP operation and most of the site is under 13 years old.

Andra

We were welcomed by the Manager of the La Manche low-level waste facility, M Frank Duret and M Jacques Tamborini who provided an historical overview of the Parc de la Croix Blanch facility as well as a general outline of the French nuclear waste management programme.

Andra was created in 1979 as part of the Atomic Energy Commission. It handles research for waste management as well as design and construction of facilities. Ministerial responsibility is split between the departments of Health, Industry and Environment which means that in the end the Prime Minister has to make the decisions, particularly when Industry and Environment are in disagreement.

M Tamborini described the "91 law" which had established a clear-cut framework for radioactive waste management. The law recognised deep geological disposal as the only safe method but public acceptance of an RCF had not been achieved because local acceptance was not forthcoming. The French government helped communities decide by offering 5 million francs per year to those that volunteered. If work started a total of 60 million francs per annum was available until the year 2006.

Work would need to commence at more than one site so that there could be a fallback if one was found unsuitable. The current philosophy was to maintain retrievability of waste for a period. M Tamborini acknowledged that there was a risk that the French government's decision would be delayed.

Paris

French Government: Ministry of the Economy, Finances and Industry

M Antoine Guéroult, Adjoint au Directeur Général de I'Energie et des Matières Premières, observed that the total stock of French plutonium was increasing. It was more difficult to return waste to overseas contractors and France was not burning plutonium fast enough, although it might reach equilibrium if all 28 reactors capable of using MOX were fully utilised. On the economics he referred to an OECD study which indicated the closed fuel cycle and disposal were very comparable. But with the plant built and the plutonium in existence from this point on, he said, it made sense to use MOX.

French Government: Ministry for Territorial Development and the Environment

Madame Dominique Voynet, Minister for Territorial Development and the Environment told us that she regarded plutonium as a waste. She said that the economics of MOX were far from convincing and that she had asked the Prime Minister for an economic analysis. She said she was suggesting to the Prime Minister that plutonium be declared a waste now.

The Minister outlined progress with the 91 Law saying it was based on a comparison of surface storage with deep disposal, but an intermediate proposal, near surface storage where the waste was easy to recover but protected against intervention, was a more sensible alternative. She acknowledged that transmutation would not be available for decades and would be at considerable cost. The construction of a rock laboratory created political and local tensions and would also be extremely costly she said.

The Minister developed an argument for reversibility based on ethical and political grounds, stating that a short time ago the scientists were 100% confident that a repository should be closed, whereas now they were speaking with less certainty. Similarly it was premature to rule out any new technologies or even reuse. She acknowledged her views were not shared by the majority of the present Government but, irrespective of her personal position on the future of the nuclear industry, she was confident that governments should examine the costs of the disposal options.

When expressing her views on energy use, CO2 etc, the Minister stated that nobody envisaged stopping the nuclear industry in a day but diversity of supply, better control of use etc, together with unsound economics, did not suggest an expanding nuclear programme. However there was no hurry to make a premature decision over the disposal of waste. France should take time to look at all the options and initiate a democratic debate about possible solutions. The only proposal which led to an irreversible decision was to go for direct geological disposal. There was no need for this decision to be taken now, indeed it was technically unsound to do so. Techniques for reversible storage should be evaluated for the next ten to twenty years.

The Minister developed the theme that research into storage technology was expensive and therefore should be shared at a European level with each country working in parallel on various techniques. Rock laboratories were expensive and should not be duplicated. Mme Voynet also discussed the difficulties over public perception if France developed a rock laboratory.



OECD Nuclear Energy Agency

Señor Luis Echavarri, the Director-General of the NEA, introduced his team: Dr Makoto Takahashi, the Deputy Director responsible for safety; Dr Hans Riotte the German Head of Radiation Protection,; and Dr Claudio Pescatore the Divisional Head of Radiation Protection. Each for their part outlined the organisation and work programme from their perspective. They provided us with comprehensive documentation reviewing the position on waste disposal in OECD member countries. Hans Riotte summed it up by stating that there are no inseparable technical or geological constraints. It should be possible for any country to find a suitable disposal site.

The data showed that whilst many countries had found disposal sites for very low level waste, none had done so for high level waste although there were many investigations under-way. Dr Riotte emphasised the different regulatory regimes across OECD countries, each with different views on acceptability and different administrative systems.

Dr Claudio Pescatore made a presentation on geological disposal. He acknowledged that there had been repeated statements by safety authorities that deep disposal could provide adequate safety but the public remained unconvinced. Techniques such as partitioning and transmutation might become part of waste management practices in future but they would not be an alternative to disposal. He described a phased procedure leading to disposal, starting with an extended interim store with reversible placement. This would enable a demonstration phase to be completed before confidence was gained to seal the repository.

Dr Pescatore commented on extrapolation into the future based on limited experience, observed that future generations will be able to apply their own technical solutions but must be presented with the best we can offer, and that a progressive approach to disposal enabled corrections to be made if unexpected events occurred. He said an OECD group was working on the "confidence aspects": the ethical, economic and political issues related to disposal. It was organisational structures more than technical issues that inhibited progress.



 
previous page contents next page

House of Lords home page Parliament home page House of Commons home page search page enquiries

© Parliamentary copyright 1999