At the end of October 2014 I visited the British Geological Survey, (BGS) in Keyworth, near Nottingham.
I was attending a meeting about ‘geological repositories‘ for either nuclear waste or carbon dioxide.
In the foyer of the BGS was an ‘interactive sandpit’ in which the height of the sand was monitored by a Kinect sensor (as used with an X-box games console). From the sand height measurements a computer then calculated an appropriate ‘contour’ image to project onto the sand.
The overall effect was magical and I could have played there for much longer than felt appropriate.
The meeting itself was fascinating with a variety of contributors who had completely different perspectives on the challenges.
However what is holding back the construction of a UK repository for nuclear waste is nothing to do with the scientific or engineering challenges: it is a failure of political leadership.
The UK has been a pioneer of nuclear power, the technology through which we reap the benefits of nuclear power.
But we have been a laggard at cleaning up the radioactive waste generated by the nuclear industry. In this field Sweden and Finland have led the way.
Admittedly their repositories will be smaller than the UK’s, and so easier to construct: I have been informed that the UK’s repository will need to be ‘about the size of Carlisle‘. But it is all do-able.
And when the UK eventually builds a repository, its cost will be inflated by the need to ensure the safety of the repository for a million years. What?…did I just say … one million years? ‘Yes’ I did. And ‘Yes’, that’s bonkers.
This time-scale makes for a number of unique challenges. At the meeting I attended, scientists were confident of the safety for a time-span somewhere between 10,000 and 100,000 years. And frankly, for me that would be good enough.
The ridiculous specifications required to be guaranteed before construction can begin, contrast with the laissez faire attitude towards burning carbon and affecting Earth’s climate. Why do we not have a moratorium on emitting carbon until we can be sure it is safe?
For example one area of uncertainty is the potential significance of microbiological fauna within rocks deep below the Earth, something about which we know very little. Do we have to wait until we can understand the millions of as yet undiscovered microbes before we can proceed?
Of course the main uncertainty – which is ultimately unresolvable – arises from the extreme lengths of time under consideration. This leads to consideration of extremely unlikely scenarios
For example, the Swedish repository company SKB is carrying out extensive research on what will happen to the repository if there is another ice age, and the repository is covered by several kilometres of ice.
First of all, given the problem de jour of global warming, this is frankly unlikely. And secondly, if Sweden is covered by several kilometres of ice, then of course all the people in Sweden would already be dead! At that point the safety of the repository would be frankly a moot point.
You can learn about this research in three short but intensely dull videos here.