Nuclear West Cumbria

At some stage the land underneath West Cumbria will be used as a dump for spent nuclear material produced as a by product of nuclear electricity generating power stations.

West Cumbria, the geologists believe, was formed by rocks laid down at various times between 500 million years ago and 200 million years ago. Since then the landscape has been formed by great climatic changes in the last two million years which have meant the land has been covered by sea, desert and ice at various times. In the past decade Cumbria has suffered from unprecedented levels of flooding, which was both unusual and unexpected. Its geology apparently leads it to be a favourable site to store nuclear waste.

Now to store nuclear waste safely is rather difficult. We simply do not know enough about the future to be able to predict accurately what will happen in hundreds of years to uranium stored today.

The cunning plan that humanity has devised is to find a piece of land where either none of the inhabitants object to uranium being stored or a piece of land when the inhabitants can be rewarded for agreeing to have uranium stored. Having got the land the humans plan to dig a very deep hole (the precise depth and dimensions are not yet known, and then dump the waste uranium suitably stored in containers then encased with cement and concrete. Having done this the hole will be covered and no doubt some kind of guard placed over the hole to prevent others from digging it up.

The geology of the land is very important. You cannot dump uranium in places where there are fault lines, known earthquakes, volcanic activity and geological stress. The uranium may be thrown up to the surface at some time in the future or the containers may be cracked causing uranium to leach into the deep water table. Stability is important and most of West Cumbria has this stability.

I expect in ten or twelve thousand years the inhabitants of the land where the hole was dug will have probably forgotten that a uranium dump was ever below the land. This, you might think, is no matter because ten thousand years is longer than recorded history on this planet. However uranium has been around much longer than humanity and spent uranium takes quite a long time until it has decayed and no longer presents a threat to life. The two key types of uranium produced as a by product of nuclear energy are uranium 235 and uranium 238. Both types are used in nuclear power stations but only uranium 235 can sustain a chain reaction and usually the uranium is enriched so that there is more uranium 235 compared with uranium 238 in the reactor so longer chain reactions can be sustained.

Uranium 238 takes 4,500 million years to decay to half its potency. That is rather a long time by you may be relieved to know that uranium 235 takes rather less time; only 713 million years, which is more time than it took to lay down the rocks of West Cumbria. Uranium is radioactive and as it decays it emits alpha and beta particles. I do not suggest that the uranium buried will remain dangerous for millions of years; it certainly will remain very dangerous for ten thousand years to eighty thousand years.

The geology might be right for storage of radioactive material but what about flooding?

Perhaps in future the poets of the Lake District will sigh:-

I wandered in a radioactive cloud
With isotopes dancing in hills
When all at once I saw a crowd
A host of alpha particles