Return to Sender? No Thanks: Despite Insisting That We Never Import It, We Have Ended Up Taking a Lot of Other People's Radioactive Waste. and They Don't Want It Back
Lowry, David, New Statesman (1996)
Officially, the UK does not import nuclear waste. In reality, the situation is not so simple. The current policy was laid down as long ago as autumn 1975, when the then energy secretary, Tony Benn, declared that "the main concern is that the United Kingdom should not become a permanent repository for storing other countries' nuclear waste". This was his response to a banner headline splashed over the front page of the Daily Mirror. "Plan to Make Britain World's Nuclear Dustbin" (21 October).
Benn went on to promise that he would require any new contracts with foreign customers who signed up to have their spent nuclear fuel reprocessed in Britain to include "return-to-sender" clauses committing them to take back their nuclear waste afterwards.
At the time of that promise, BNFL and the UK Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA) had already signed reprocessing contracts with customers in Japan, Italy and Sweden which did not include return to-sender clauses, so as a result both Sellafield and Dounreay in northern Scotland now store large quantities of radioactive waste that originates from reprocessing imported spent fuel. But it does not end there: even despite the policy commitment made all those years ago, some nuclear waste that is contracted to be repatriated remains in the UK.
David Bonser, head of BNFL's assets, liabilities and financing agency Alfa, told a Nuclear Free Local Authorities seminar in Slough last October that, to date, no waste has been returned to countries of origin on a commercial scale, only some on a small-scale basis. And the environment minister Elliot Morley said on 15 September this year: "No shipments of radioactive waste for disposal have been sent abroad from the UK since 2001."
Nor indeed is much reprocessing waste ever likely to leave our shores for disposal or storage in the countries of origin. The reason for this is BNFL's plans to implement its so-called "substitution" policy for the return of wastes, with the aim of reducing the costs and minimising the logistics of shipping large volumes of low-activity wastes back to customer countries. A paper prepared by the government's nuclear waste advisers, the Radioactive Waste Management Advisory Committee, in 1992 explained that the repatriation commitment could be implemented by "BNFL returning to non-UK customers an equivalent quantity of vitrified high level residues for all other wastes".
Aside from radioactive residues retained under the substitution scheme, the UK does actually import some nuclear waste, as waste, despite previous protestations that it doesn't. This was confirmed in a ministerial reply by Morley on 15 September, admitting that "three shipments of radioactive waste into the UK have been authorised since 2001. …