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Radioactive Waste (Disposal)

Volume 15: debated on Wednesday 16 December 1981

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asked the Secretary of State for the Environment whether he has reviewed the research programme into the long-term options for disposing of high level radioactive waste; and if he will make a statement.

The Government have been reviewing the research programme and this review has highlighted the fact that, the longer such waste is stored, the more safely it could be eventually buried, because there would then be less heat to dissipate. For this reason, the radioactive waste management advisory committee recommended in its second report, published earlier this year, that serious consideration should be given to the desirability of storing high level waste at the surface in solid form for a period of 50 years and possibly much longer. At the end of that period a decision would be needed whether to continue to store it, or to bury it deep underground, or to use one of the other methods—emplacement on or under the ocean bed—currently under investigation.The Government have now reviewed the geological element in the research programme for high level waste in the light of that advice and the conclusions already reached about general feasibility.The Government have been keeping under review the options for high level waste, and in particular have been reviewing the progress in other countries as well. The considerable level of research work already completed relates in particular to the factors involved in the emplacement of high level waste deep underground. The Government's objective has been to establish in principle the feasibility of that potential method of disposal, and now believe that in the light of their review of progress of work overseas that this is now established in principle, and nothing has emerged to indicate that it would be unacceptable.

They have decided that this part of the programme should now be reoriented to confirming the applicability to the United Kingdom of the findings from research in other countries. For the time being this will be done by means of desk studies, laboratory work, and the use of data already available. Exploratory drilling will not be needed for this purpose. The Government will look to the radioactive waste management advisory committee for advice on the interpretation and implications of work carried out in other countries, as well as on other aspects.

Appropriate provision will be made for the surface storage of vitrified waste. In view of the lengthened time scale and the plans to construct disposal facilities in other countries, it is not now intended to construct a demonstration facility for underground disposal in the United Kingdom. Instead the United Kingdom will follow closely studies involving underground facilities in Sweden, Canada and the USA for granite, in Belgium for clay, and in the USA and Germany for salt.

The reorientation of the research programme does not mean that further geological field work would not be useful, and indeed possibly necessary for decisions that may have to be taken at some future date or if any unexpected difficulty became apparent over storage, but it does not have any present priority. The immediate effect of this decision is that the appeals for planning permission for drilling in the Cheviots will be dismissed, and the other pending appeals and planning applications will be withdrawn.

It will now be possible to concentrate the full priority on the continuing research and implementation in ensuring the safe and acceptable storage of wastes. At the same time priority will be given to making progress towards the early disposal of those wastes with a lower level of radioactivity for which there is no technical advantage in delaying disposal. Research will also continue into the feasibility of the ocean disposal options for high level waste, which have not yet been established. A White Paper will be published in due course to set out in more detail the current priorities as we see them.