“Removing the lid from that flask would be a rapidly life limiting experience”. This potent understatement was delivered this morning as we filmed examples of waste nuclear fuel for which Britain is still struggling to find a long term home. We were at Chapelcross in Scotland – one of the country’s oldest nuclear reactors built back in the fifties primarily to provide weapons grade plutonium but also producing useful amounts of electricity for the grid. Now being decommissioned, the spent fuel is shipped off site in cubic bomb proof flasks ( I love the way they call them flasks – it makes them sound a bit like your Gran’s thermos of warming tea on a blustery beach). First stop is Sellafield before some material joins the growing pile of Nuclear waste we don’t know what to do with.
We are investigating the plans for deep underground burial, a project of mind stretching scale: bigger than the channel tunnel, covering 20sqkm underground, throwing up spoil heaps the size of 2 pyramids of Giza, taking two lifetimes to complete and designed to contain the radiation below for longer than mankind has walked the land above .
“Hands up who wants that” asked the government and so far the only credible volunteer looks like being West Cumbria – the seaward skirt of the Lake District where Sellafield sits and delivers more than one billions pounds every year to the local economy alongside plenty of jobs. So, politically plausible but what about the geology….errm… Not quite so attractive according to an expert who took us for a walk along the cliffs at nearby St Bees. Showing us cracks in the sandstone where water seeps out today, he predicted that, if the plans went ahead, that water could be irradiated in a couple of hundred years and, in half that time, radioactive gases could seep to the surface. “The geology’s much better in Norfolk, between Cambridge and Norfolk” he said. Not a claim likely to feature heavily in the ‘Visit East Anglia’ brochure and not all geologists share his doubts about Cumbria. But it does raise an interesting question.
Should radioactive waste be buried where it is popular or where it is safe? Critical viewing on CountryFile BBC 1 Sunday 17th June.