Over the past decade, radioactive-waste management, practice and policy has suffered a number of set-backs in the UK. But these difficulties have not, until recently, fed into a wider crisis in policy for the back-end, as in West Germany and Sweden. Governments and the nuclear industry itself have alternately treated radwaste management either as a marginal problem, or as one which was too explosive to touch. In both moods, only partial management strategies have been devised.
Until the manoeuvring which preceded the botched privatization of the electricity supply industry, radwaste management had reached public attention in diverse and often unconnected ways. The authorized dispersion of radioactive discharges into the air and sea has created a long-running and public scientific dispute, accidental releases have produced calls for tighter control, and the search for disposal sites at sea and on land has produced serial localized protests. But these strands are never clearly knitted together and we have not seen in Britain the scale of conflict witnessed in Germany and Sweden.
Yet radwaste management strategy has frequently proven a fragile contraption. So much so that use of the word ‘policy’ seems appropriate when describing the decision-making process in Britain. In government, the term ‘strategy’ is more often used. A strategy is to a plan what an invention is to an innovation; it has a more tenuous relation to reality.
A leitmotif of this chapter will be the question of why radwaste policy in Britain has not really impinged on nuclear-fuel-cycle policy. The answer stems partly from the legislative framing of radwaste management as one of limiting the diffusion of radioactivity into the general environment on short time-scales. While this has suited both the needs of the nuclear industry and the regulators, it is not an arrangement which has coped well with the operational and political difficulties created by the policy of reprocessing. Even now it is not possible for the reactor operators openly to make provisions for a non-reprocessing, spent-fuel