RSC response to the nuclear debate

02 May 2006

We may be able to bury waste from nuclear power but we cannot bury the fact that if the skills erosion continues unabated there will not be enough specialist scientists and engineers to handle the waste properly.

The issue of new nuclear power stations [FT 28 April] and dealing with nuclear legacy waste is of vital importance for the UK's energy policy.  However, a decision to build new nuclear power stations must not be made at the expense of programmes in energy efficiency, microgeneration, renewable power, carbon capture and storage technology.

The RSC agrees with the committee on radioactive waste management that a UK geological repository is the correct long-term storage option.  For this much R&D needs to be completed over the coming years to ensure that our nuclear waste is managed safely and securely including handling the several UK problem waste types (eg 140 tonnes plutonium) that require R&D to determine long-term management options; and understanding what happens to nuclear waste in a repository including how to monitor it, the mechanisms of interaction with the surrounding geology, and models that predict the mobility of radioactive elements in this environment.

The new nuclear power stations, that will produce less waste than those that we have now, will also require specialist scientists and engineers for commissioning, running, waste management, eventual decommissioning and, critically, within the regulatory bodies overseeing the industry. 

Our recent seminar on 'Future Nuclear Power' showed that sufficient funds can be accrued to manage all legacy and new nuclear waste by adding a 0.1p levy per kiloWatt hour on electricity generated during a new nuclear power station's lifetime.

Given the paucity of UK facilities for radioactive work, there is an urgent need for the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, the research councils, the nuclear industry and UK academia to agree on what facilities are needed, and where. 

Underpinning all of this is the supply of specialist scientists and engineers. For this we need fully funded laboratory-based science courses and high-quality teaching in our universities.

A price worth paying.

Dr Richard Pike, Chief Executive, Royal Society of Chemistry, London

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