Land remediation and the true cost of cleaning up the UK’s nuclear industry

The Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA)’s Nuclear Provision corporate report published on July 13 claims that the estimated cost of cleaning up 17 historic nuclear sites in the UK has slightly decreased from the last year’s estimated £118 billion. The current estimate stands at £117 billion to be spread over the next 120 years.

Land remediation and the true cost of cleaning up the UK's nuclear industry

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What does nuclear cleanup involve?

Nuclear cleanup involves decommissioning the plants, dismantling them and demolishing the buildings. The waste needs to be managed and disposed of safely, which is a massive problem, particularly with the hazardous high-level waste for which no disposal procedure has yet been agreed upon. Remediation of the land will then be necessary before the site can be declared safe.

The NDA admits that the actual cost of the cleanup will be affected by factors such as economic circumstances, changes in government policy, environmental issues and improvements in technology and that the estimate should be viewed as an informed one.

It goes on to explain that due to uncertainties and the fact that suitable technologies have not yet been identified for all sites, the figure could be between £95 and £219 billion, but it may still be subject to change.

Cumbria Trust says that in November 2012, Margaret Hodge, who was the chair of the public accounts committee at the time, condemned conditions at Sellafield as posing intolerable risks to people and the environment. Although work has commenced, it will be decades before it is completed.

Remediation of the land

Following decommissioning and dismantling, land remediation through Ash Remediation or similar companies can be commenced. The purpose of this is to remove contamination from the area so it can be made suitable for other purposes. Some sites are more straightforward to clean up than others, and work is beginning at some sites that housed Magnox nuclear power stations. At these and former research sites such as Harwell and Dounreay, cost estimates have been reduced. At Sellafield, the NDA’s largest site, high levels of uncertainty make accurate estimates impossible.

New nuclear rules

According to the NDA, new nuclear power stations that are built will have cost forecasts and plans for decommissioning in place before building commences. They are expected to produce less waste and be cheaper to dismantle.