Updated: Sep 15, 2022
For many years, we’ve heard nuclear waste is terrible and we should forget about building low-carbon nuclear power plants. But how bad is it really? Mark Lynas decided to find out, taking the train to one of Britain’s nuclear waste storage facilities.
Mark Lynas (left) and Joel Scott-Halkes, taking a close look at nuclear waste produced at Sizewell's power plant.
“But what about the waste?” It’s the killer line that can end any argument that nuclear power might be needed to solve the climate crisis. We’ve heard over and over how nuclear waste is an unsolved problem, leaving a terrible toxic legacy for future generations. End of discussion.
But is it really? What does nuclear waste even look like up close? Is it hurting people and wildlife? Is it polluting the natural environment? If so, how? I decided to visit a nuclear waste facility to find out for myself.
As I travelled to Suffolk in eastern England on the train, accompanied by ex-Extinction Rebellion (XR) campaigner and fellow RePlaneteer Joel Scott-Halkes, I considered my own mental images of nuclear waste. There’s Homer Simpson of course, with a glowing green blob stuck accidentally down the back of his trousers. Ha ha. And toxic sludge in ponds. Either way it must be pretty dreadful. Not the sort of stuff you get anywhere close, let alone cuddle up to.
We were on our way to Sizewell B, Britain’s newest nuclear power station, whose containment dome is instantly recognisable as a huge bright-white golf ball above a pebbly beach on the east coast, not far from Ipswich. (If you visit, make sure you stop at Sizewell Tea, frequented by beach-goers which is just over the fence from the reactors, for a mean lentil burger and chips ... with tea of course.)
Sizewell is in contention for another reactor, Sizewell C. Its CO2 intensity is projected to be under 5g/kWh, lower than both wind and solar. Even so, the anti-nuclear lobby has been having marches and whatnot to try to stop it. One of their main arguments? Nuclear waste of course.
We were met at the front gate by staff from EDF, the French energy company which manages Sizewell, conducted through security and issued with special clothing including steel toe-capped shoes and eye protection. This was nothing to do with radioactivity, we were assured – like the hard hats we were also given, it was all standard industrial site PPE.
Why couldn’t we call it waste? This was Joel’s question – being an XR radical who doesn’t like to use industry PR language.
We were also told to stop talking about ‘nuclear waste’. What we were about to see was ‘spent fuel’, hot fuel assemblies which had been hauled out of the reactor after most of the fissionable material had been used up, and which had already spent several years submerged in one of those bright blue cooling ponds to cool down. (I remember being told by a friend who visited one of the cooling ponds that he had asked a plant worker what would happen if he fell in. “Well, you might drown!” replied the exasperated engineer.)
Why couldn’t we call it waste? This was Joel’s question – being an XR radical fresh from his most recent court summons, he is someone who doesn’t like to use industry PR language. Because, EDF told us, 96% of the original energy in the uranium was still there in the spent fuel rods, and could be reprocessed for use in a new generation of reactors if anyone wanted. Therefore it is potentially valuable, not ‘waste’ which you want to just throw away, and the storage casks have been designed for this if needed.
"We were issued with special clothing including steel toe-capped shoes and eye protection. This was nothing to do with radioactivity, we were assured – it was all standard industrial site PPE."
Then, as a steel mesh door slammed behind us, we were ushered into a large hangar-type building with a concrete floor and high roof. And there it was: all of Sizewell B’s dry-stored spent nuclear fuel since the reactor started up in 1995. Sixteen large round canisters, just under five metres high and a couple of metres in diameter each, clustered together in one corner of a large warehouse.
The canisters are steel and concrete, reassuringly impervious to hazards like aircraft strikes and tsunamis. The whole building is a few metres elevated, so sea level rise is not a concern either. The spent fuel inside is still hot, so you can see a bit of heat escaping from the top – air is conducted from vents around the base by convection, so they cool themselves, requiring no manual intervention. The only bit of maintenance work seemed to be the continual hoovering up of balls of seed fluff blown in from the coastal willow trees outside. Tough job.
And that was it: no dramatic music, nothing glowing green, just some round canisters sitting there and doing nothing. The plan is they will carry on doing nothing, for as long as a century if necessary, gradually cooling down as the radioactivity produced by hot isotopes in the spent fuel decays away.
I put the dosimeter right up against the cask: 0.12. Radiation was lower even than natural background level. How could this be?
What about radiation? We must be being bombarded with radiation, right? I borrowed a gamma dosimeter from a helpful EDF staffer. The digital display measured radioactivity in micro-sieverts per hour, coming in at about 0.15 as we stood some distance from the spent fuel casks. This, the EDF man told me, was natural background radiation, coming from rocks underneath our feet. Gingerly, I approached one of the casks, holding the dosimeter out in front of me. 0.15, 0.15, 0.14 ... as I got closer the numbers changed ... 0.13, 0.12.
I put the dosimeter right up against the cask: 0.12, lower even than natural background level. How could this be? The fuel is shielded by metal and concrete, the EDF man told me, so the reading was slightly lower, probably because this was also shielding me from natural background radiation. The amount escaping from the hot spent fuel was actually zero. Nada.
By this point, Joel had fallen in love with one of the casks. He was cuddling it, putting his face against it, showering it with affection. He was denied permission to kiss it, though only for hygiene reasons. (Joel later tested positive for Covid, so this turned out to be a good call by EDF.) I joined him and we hugged it together, thanking it for having generated so much zero-carbon energy and thereby helping tackle the climate emergency.
"By this point, Joel had fallen in love with one of the casks..."
A signboard gave us the precise figures: each cask had generated enough carbon-free electrical power to displace 1.5 million tonnes of CO2. I pictured the casks as giant soda stream bottles, each compressing 1.5 million tonnes of carbon dioxide and preventing it getting into the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide is waste generated by fossil fuelled-power every minute of every day, all of it dumped up chimneys, treating the atmosphere as if it were a gigantic sewer.
So why the focus of some environmentalists on nuclear waste? It’s a strangely human form of denialism, or psychological displacement, to focus on the non-problem (nuclear waste) at the expense of the real problem (climate breakdown). One type of waste is fully secured and will remain so for as long as necessary or until it is recycled. As far as I know, no human or animal has ever been harmed by it. We certainly weren’t, and we couldn’t have got much closer.
It’s a form of denialism to focus on the non-problem (nuclear waste) at the expense of the real problem (climate breakdown).
Even if it goes into a repository for deep geological disposal – a fine solution technically but one I am not keen on simply because it looks bad – nuclear waste is separated from the biosphere, unlike CO2. Fossil fuel waste kills millions a year with coal ash, sulphates and mercury, and is bringing our biosphere close to a planetary-level mass extinction with carbon.
Waste from solar power and batteries is also a thing: much of it still cannot be recycled, and contains toxic elements that will remain toxic not just for a few decades or centuries but for ever. Should this stop their deployment? Of course not – but it does need addressing, and it does help put the nuclear issue in context. If you think about it, far from being a menace, the nuclear industry may be the only one that takes full responsibility for all its waste, from cradle to grave, effectively for ever.
Having visited Sizewell, I had to conclude that for me as an environmentalist and climate activist, nuclear waste is simply a non-issue. It harms no one and it sits around in big buildings looking boring, for centuries if necessary. It won’t get any more dangerous in the future – in fact it gets safer and safer as the radioactivity declines. That should truly be the end of the argument. Now can we get on with addressing real threats to the survival of the biosphere, like runaway global heating?
Mark Lynas is the author of numerous books on the environment, including Nuclear 2.0: Why a Green Future Needs Nuclear Power.