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EU nuclear waste disposal plans 'not safe' claim scientists

Emily Shelton

16th September 2010

Experts warn EU proposals for deep geological disposal of radioactive waste have ‘serious potential for something to go badly wrong’

There are ‘serious flaws’ in the advice being given to EU ministers on disposing of nuclear waste deep underground, scientists have concluded.

Geological disposal, where radioactive waste is buried in rock formations underground, is the preferred approach of a number of European countries, with potential sites having already been identified in Finland, Sweden and the UK, in Cumbria.

However, scientists and environmentalists have revealed 'serious flaws in the advice being given to the Commission' and are calling for more research into alternative options.

A major review of the science surrounding deep geological disposal, commissioned by Greenpeace, has highlighted numerous risks of failure which could result in highly radioactive waste being released into our groundwater or seas for centuries. Problems include: corrosion of containers; heat and gas formation leading to pressurisation and cracking of the storage chamber; unexpected chemical reactions; geological uncertainties; future ice ages, earthquakes and human interference.

Report author Dr Helen Wallace says people need to ‘grasp the enormity of the challenge’.

‘We’re talking about trying to contain this waste for a greater amount of time than human beings have been living on the planet, so although [we] might be able to predict the consequences over a short time scale, that’s an enormous scientific challenge’.

‘This waste is extremely radioactive and very hot so it’s going to significantly change the water flow deep underground; the corrosion of materials and the repository will release large quantities of gas which have to escape somehow.’ She warned the waste will ‘remain dangerous for many generations’.

Recent proposals from the EU’s Joint Research Centre (JRC) and the European ‘Implementing Geological Disposal’ Technology Platform (IGD-TP) claim there is a scientific consensus in support of deep geological disposal but Dr Wallace suggests this consensus is a ‘political rather than scientific one’.

The EU Commission is expected to publish a draft nuclear waste plan this autumn with ambitions for the first geological disposal facilities for nuclear waste to be ready by 2025.

Greenpeace is calling on EU leaders to look at alternatives, such as near surface or above ground storage or deep bore holes. Storing waste above ground was seen by Dr Wallace as the 'least bad option' because corrosion and leaking could be prevented.

Useful links
Greenpeace report ‘Rock Solid?'
Vision Document of the European ‘Implementing Geological Disposal’ Technology Platform (IGD-TP)

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