Exclusive: Brexit Could Make Cleaning Up Britain's Nuclear Waste Harder

By James O Malley on at

As Britain tumbles towards the hardest Brexit, the debate is dominated by what the fateful referendum could mean for British business, and jobs - but these aren’t the only weighty matters that we should be thinking about.

For byzantine legal reasons, when we triggered Article 50 we didn’t just stick two fingers up at the European Union, we also signalled our intent to quit Euratom - the continent-wide agency that oversees our nuclear industry and materials.

Today, thanks to a freedom of information request, Gizmodo UK can exclusively reveal details of some of the internal worries from Britain’s Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, the government organisation tasked with getting rid of or making safe 17 dangerous former nuclear sites around the country. We’ve obtained a document that was collated on the 13th July last year - just a couple of weeks after the referendum - and it reads as though Brexit could make an already complicated task even trickier.

What is the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority?

The reason we have a Nuclear Decommissioning Authority is actually super interesting. It exists, essentially, because of the mess we made decades ago. Because we’re responsible for pioneering many of the nuclear technologies that power the modern world, there are various sites around the country that are now potentially dangerous because of our earlier sloppy approach to health and safety. Sellafield for instance, the biggest site, was built without any plan for later decommissioning. For the same reasons - that we were inventing the stuff - much of the equipment and material was also non-standard, meaning there isn’t an off-the-shelf means to take it out of commission.

These are all the sites the NDA looks after.

The upshot to all this is that now scientists have a massive headache when it comes to making these sites safe. So in 2005 the NDA was created to handle Britain’s “nuclear legacy”. Perhaps what’s most striking when you dig into the NDA’s plans is that the job is so big that they don’t expect Sellafield to finally be fully decommissioned until 2121 - yep, the government is trying to plan for something that will last well over a century.

And this is where Brexit enters the equation. The document we’ve seen runs through some of the biggest strategic challenges created by us leaving the EU - with the obvious unwritten implication that it is going to make the work of the agency and its subsidiaries harder. The NDA itself doesn’t get terribly hands on - instead, each nuclear site or project is managed by a separate limited company (so privately owned companies can get involved) - and the document rounds up some of the responses from these subsidiaries too, which helps paint a picture of the real implications.

EU Funding and EU Nationals

One of the major questions the document attempts to address is working out what just how much the NDA’s current projects rely on the EU. For example, luckily these projects are already over but the EU forked over a contribution of €5.5m towards project called ASGARD, which torturously stands for Advanced fuelS for Generation IV reActors: Reprocessing and Dissolution. It also put another €5.6m towards SACSESS - Safety of Actinide Separation Processes (oh god, is this supposed to be a tortured pun on the word "success"?!).

This is an a slide made by some ASGARD scientists. In a sense it is reassuring that scientists are too busy doing science to learn how to do graphic design.

More exciting for non-scientists like you and I is the subsidiary company Radioactive Waste Manage Ltd. This is a company tasked with the mind-bending task of figuring out where we should bury all of our nuclear waste for the next 100,000 years.

Yes, seriously. The next 100,000 years. The NDA’s current plan is that by 2040 we’ll have a “geological disposal facility” up and running, which will be an enormous, deep underground, radioactive tomb that we’ll concrete up for our descendents to deal with. At the moment the company is engaged in a bunch of research tasks aimed at learning more about how best to store radioactive material - and is figuring out where, geologically speaking, is the best place to store it in the long term. Good luck to whichever future government is who has to pick the unlucky winner of that competition.

This could be what the underground storage facility looks like. We think about half way up on the right is where the Bond villain’s lair will be located.

Perhaps unsurprisingly given how critical this technology could be for Britain and the rest of the world, the EU is fronting a lot of the research cash. For example, one project - DOPAS - The Full-Scale Demonstration of Plugs and Seals, studied how to, umm, plug and seal radioactive waste. In this case Europe paid €8,700,000 - half the cost of doing it. It has also recently paid for a number of other similar projects.

The document goes on to reveal that RWM is planning to seek European cash for future projects with similarly impenetrable acronyms. The best one is Europe putting an expected contribution of €3-4m into “DISCO” - a project studying the Dissolution of Spent Fuel in Waste Containers.

Though it isn’t explicitly spelled out in the document, the implication is obvious: If our relationship with Europe is currently up in the air - so is the ability to pay for these important research projects.

Big Strategic Concerns

Perhaps the broader story of the document though isn’t these individual projects which are, in the grand, century-long scheme of things, pretty small fry. The bigger issue looks set to be more structural issues, which could present strategic challenges for nuclear decommissioning.

The document summarises some of the biggest concerns - and highlights the huge problems created not just by Britain running away from Europe, but also from the massive uncertainty about Britain’s relationship that existed when the document was put together in July 2016 - and which still exist today.

For example, Britain leaving Euratom is a big deal. What exactly this means isn’t spelled out - but as Clare Moody points out in The Guardian, the organisation is responsible for safeguarding inspections at all civilian nuclear facilities in the country - and it is the legal owner of all nuclear material and technologies that the UK buys. So the next question is obvious: What happens now? It appears that nobody knows yet.

Similarly, there are more foundational problems for the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority and the various subsidiaries, as various legal agreements and procurement processes are all based on European law. Many environmental laws are also based on European law.

It's the law that if you write about nuclear stuff you have to include a picture like this. Who knew that subatomic-particles were so colourful?

Perhaps the biggest danger though - reading between the lines - is the risks associated with Britain becoming more hostile to immigration.

“UK universities have a multinational community”, the document explains, “UK universities have been very successful in attracting the best talent (students and academic staff) from across the world, which in turn leads additional funding, better teaching and higher quality research. An inability to attract non-UK EU nationals would have a negative impact on UK universities and indirectly on the NDA estate R&D programme.”

It adds:

“Many UK universities have been successful in attracting EU funding for new facilities and equipment. Loss of this funding would have a negative impact on UK universities and indirectly on the NDA estate R&D programme.”

In other words, even in cases when the EU isn’t directly linked to something, it could impact the broader R&D ecosystem - with universities turning out fewer high quality scientists who can carry out the R&D necessary to keep our nuclear sites safe.

To be clear, we won’t be completely screwed. Public Health England, another government agency contributes this to the report:

“The quality and experience of UK researchers as well as the quality and value of UK data means that PHE and their UK partners are expected to continue to be valued collaborators in the fields of radiation epidemiology, radiation biology and associated areas such as radiation dosimetry”.

The trouble is that research like this isn’t a zero-sum game, as summed up in a contribution from Sellafield Ltd, the company which is overseeing decommissioning on the Cumbrian site: “There may be missed opportunities if we (UK) do not fully collaborate with other EU member states”, it says. “In order to mitigate this, the UK could respond by seeking bilateral agreements with other companies (within the EU or internationally).”

Radioactive Waste Management, the company that is working on preparations for the massive underground facility, also spells out the benefits of collaboration - and implicitly the negatives from not collaborating.

“Manpower and research value / leverage gained through participation in EU projects is likely to be impacted”, it says. It also believes that an end to free movement of people - a near certainty as we head towards a hard Brexit - could mean an “Inability to attract workforce / researchers / students”.

It also believes the uncertainty during the Brexit negotiations could dissuade non-UK EU citizens from applying for research positions that the organisation supports.

“Currently 20% of EU money to UK goes to research, uncertainty regarding how this perceived ‘short fall’ will be managed could cause our top academics to leave / or not come to undertake research in the UK”, RWM points out.

Uncertainty

Ultimately then, it appears that certainly on our interpretation, that Brexit is going to create a megacurie of headaches when it comes to getting rid of radioactive waste. We’ve reached out to all of the organisations mentioned to ask if the document still reflects their current thinking on Brexit and will update this post if they respond.

But what’s also clear is that this is that it makes a wider point too about the almost unfathomable complexity of Brexit. The nuclear industry is still a relatively small part of British life - and this document is a good example of how the high-level decision made by politicians in Westminster to pursue a hard Brexit can have mushrooming consequences.

James O'Malley is Interim Editor of Gizmodo UK and tweets as @Psythor.