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Why we need a long-term answer for nuclear waste disposal

24 June 2022

Andrew Jones MP shares his learnings after the second All-Party Parliamentary Group on Infrastructure (APPGI) industry briefing. 

Why we need a long-term answer for nuclear waste disposal
It’s not just power generation, but also health and defence that generate nuclear waste. Image credit: DedMityay

Our second APPGI industry briefing of the year saw Karen Wheeler from Nuclear Waste Services tell us about a piece of infrastructure that’s very important but barely on the radar.

That is, to provide a geological disposal facility for our nuclear waste.

There have been two attempts to do this previously, but without success.

This resulted in 20 above-ground sites across the UK where nuclear waste is currently being stored.

It’s worth remembering that it’s not just power generation, but also health and defence that generate nuclear waste. A long-term answer is needed.

A timely discussion

I said in my blog at the start of January that power infrastructure – generation and distribution and so on – would be at the heart of our policy questions for this year.

Well, that became an understatement a few weeks later when Russia invaded Ukraine.

Nobody is suggesting now that we don’t need more energy, and with increased security and resilience too.

There was more timeliness to a briefing on nuclear than we planned!

The fact that we are many years away from a waste solution suggests the UK has some catching up to do.

Thinking big

Karen, who’s in charge of delivering the disposal facilities, gave us an overview of the project, with all its complexities of engineering and geology.

The first thing that jumped out at me was the timescales involved.

When we discuss infrastructure, we think several decades ahead for the lifespan required. In this case we are thinking hundreds, thousands of years.

And the scale of the construct was larger than my expectation, with a 5km-by-5km underground facility envisaged.

Such a size would provide for the waste from more nuclear power in the future.

I’d also thought that the harder the rock the better it'd be for stability, but that was wrong too.

All reasons why these industry briefings are so helpful!

A global challenge

Other countries are on the same journey. Of course they are – they have waste to manage too.

In many cases, they are further ahead. The Finns, for example, expect to open their facility in 2024.

The lessons the UK can learn from other countries was something I asked about, and this led to some fascinating insights.

The key one being that community buy-in was the hardest element of the whole project.

For anyone who’s had to deliver infrastructure policy, that will ring true.

Whether you’re in local government and deal with planning applications and housing, or in national government, dealing with HS2, a road upgrade or countless other projects.

Time and trust are key

There’s a big gap between people knowing infrastructure is needed and being happy with change.

We were told that time and trust were the key, the time element necessary for the building of trust. The communication of community benefits was fundamental too.

In addition to the jobs, and there would be many high-end ones, funding for community projects and facilities was available.

I’ve spent much time in local and national government, so I recognised the challenge and agreed that this part of the project is critical. I’m sure all my colleagues would agree!

The feedback from the French authorities was that it had taken them 20 years.

The UK facility is planned for construction around 2040 at the earliest, so the work with communities here has time to develop. There are four sites where that dialogue is taking place.

The briefing session was fascinating. Not just for the engineering component, but because we learned how the engagement and community side of the project will ultimately be the factor that determines success.

It’s sessions like these why these industry briefings that are now a part of our event programme have been widely welcomed by colleagues and the industry.

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  • Andrew Jones MP, chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Infrastructure (APPGI)