The floor at the storage centre for spent nuclear waste at Sellafield is hot. “You can feel it coming up through your socks and shoes,” says physicist Jim Al-Khalili. The rising heat comes from what he calls “nasty stuff”, the three per cent of spent nuclear fuel that can’t be reprocessed and has been vitrified, ie dried into a powder, turned into glass, then stored in containers beneath the Sellafield facility.
Al-Khalili enjoyed unprecedented access to the nuclear research facility and power station on the Cumbrian coast for his new BBC4 documentary. But other than being disconcerted by the underfloor heating, it’s the “waste of half a century ago”, when the UK rushed to develop nuclear weapons and power, that concerns him. “Their view of what was safe storage was just very slapdash – they assumed the problem would go away,” he says.
As a dedicated supporter of nuclear power Al-Khalili is convinced we have no choice but to build more nuclear power stations. “We can’t say we don’t like nuclear if we don’t want to burn fossil fuels and still live the way we do,” he says. “We just have to do it better this time. We have a moral obligation not to leave mess for the next generation, or the 100 generations after them and into the future.
Happily, Al-Khalili believes human ingenuity will triumph. “Some 20 to 30 years from now we’ll figure out a way of transmuting the waste and rendering it harmless by bombarding it with neutrons.”
Until then, cleaning up can be an unsettling business. “When they remove the fuel rods from old reactor cores the gamma ray readings [the most dangerous type of radiation] shoot up, so I watched them put a remote control camera in. I wasn’t going to be leaning over having a look.
Sellafield is one of the most secure places in the British Isles. Getting access to the site was tough, not least, Al-Khalili reckons, because of his name. “It took nearly two years to get clearance to film there; months of vetting before we were allowed on the site. I was born in Baghdad so I suspect my application went a long way up the chain to GCHQ. But it’s nice to be cleared. I now know that the British government trusts me, I’m one of the good guys!
The programme is part of a BBC season around the 70th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, events that have had a long-lasting effect on public perceptions of the nuclear industry, as have disasters like the flooding of the nuclear reactors at Fukushima in Japan following an earthquake and subsequent tsunami in March 2011.
The Fukushima plant was over 40 years old,” says Al-Khalili. “No one would build a nuclear plant like that any more. And yet it survived a magnitude-nine earthquake and a tsunami.”
Al-Khalili says we have to overcome public hostility towards nuclear power. “In France, which has more nuclear plants, it’s not such a big deal. Here, ‘not in my back yard’ issues confront any government – it’s hard enough to extend Heathrow or Gatwick. People think that it’s like The Simpsons, that they’re pouring barrels of nuclear waste into a pond.”
In fact, he says, the opposite is true, with a strong safety culture at Sellafield. “The regulations are so tight that I received a lower dose of radiation there than I would have done if I had spent three weeks lying on the beach in Devon or Cornwall.” But would he live by a nuclear power station? “Yes, I’d feel perfectly safe.”
“I’m more worried about building coal-fired power stations and the sea rising so much that my house could be under water in 20 years – that’s a much more serious problem for me.”