Could shale be used to store high level nuclear waste?

We have taken our time in considering whether we should carry this story. Not because we doubt its authenticity but because the news has been around for a week or so now and it has generated a lot of interest, particularly on Twitter. A lot of the tweets have been of a very personal nature and professional reputations have been questioned. However, we have been contacted by lots of worried residents and as the story is now in the public domain, we have decided to explain it.

The British Geological Survey (BGS) has been instructed by the Government to look into using shale for the storing of nuclear waste from power stations. The research will investigate whether shale would act as a suitable repository to store radioactive material for a considerable period.

It’s important to point out that, firstly, this project is only at the research stage and the research may conclude that shale is unsuitable, and, secondly, that it is shale in general that is being researched, not specifically shale in the Fylde. However, assuming that the BGS research proves that shale is suitable for the waste, it doesn’t require a great leap to see that the Fylde and other parts of Lancashire could be suitable locations. There are two good reasons why the Fylde might fit the bill.

One is the delivery mechanism to get the waste into the ground. The waste under consideration is high level, such as spent nuclear fuel or by-products of nuclear reprocessing. It must be stored for thousands of years before it no longer poses a hazard, and it needs to be stored deep underground. It isn’t possible to construct a conventional mine that would be deep enough, so the obvious delivery method would be to dispose of the waste into the shale, via the deep boreholes left after the shale gas has been extracted. The boreholes are just over a foot for 1,000 or so feet. Then nine inches for approximately 4,000 feet , and then five inches for about three miles. With the current plans for shale gas extraction in the Fylde, there will eventually be approximately 2,400 miles of borehole beneath the area.

The other reason is cost. Offshore boreholes could be drilled into shale but at a huge cost to the taxpayer. Alternatively, once the shale gas has been extracted in Lancashire, we will be left with hundreds of boreholes, already constructed – so minimal cost for the Government.

It seems a reasonable assumption that if the BGS’s research proves that shale is a suitable repository for nuclear waste ,then the Fylde and other areas of Lancashire may be considered an appropriate storage area for the world’s most dangerous material.

This would be bad enough news even if it could be done safely. But we know it can’t. Currently, there are no adequate onshore regulations to ensure the integrity of the boreholes for fracking purposes. And evidence shows that boreholes leak. We know that on the Fylde, no one is checking these boreholes, apart from the drilling company itself. The Health & Safety Executive has visited the Fylde only once since drilling began, and has admitted that it does not have the manpower to carry out inspections.

Since the news of this research came into the public domain, individuals have been doing their own digging around and have been contacting us to say that they have been in touch with the BGS, who has categorically denied that they are conducting research into storing nuclear waste in boreholes. And, of course, the BGS is right – the research is looking at storing the waste in shales not boreholes. Please remember to differentiate between the two if you are thinking of contacting the BGS with a Freedom of Information request.

A quick search online retrives these odds and ends on the subject and makes clear we have reason to suspect this as a possibility:

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