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A bad decision

Author : Alan Franck, Editor, HazardEx

01 February 2013

The decision by Cumbria County Council (CCC) to veto further involvement in the UK Government’s research programme to identify a site for an underground nuclear waste store has effectively killed off any prospect of deep burial for the country’s high and intermediate-level radioactive wastes for the foreseeable future.

Secretary of State for Energy Ed Davey said he was “disappointed” by the decision to withdraw from the Managing Radioactive Waste Safely (MRWS) process to identify possible sites for the so-called geological disposal facility (GDF), but that he is confident that the inducement package on offer and the boost to local employment would bring forward other local authorities.

Where his confidence comes from is a mystery. Outside Cumbria, only one other local council took part in the early stages of the process - Shepway in Kent. 

There, the reaction was immediate. Kent County Council leader Paul Carter orchestrated the campaign against MRWS, saying: "Kent County Council is totally opposed to initiating any process that even entertains the possibility of building a nuclear waste disposal site anywhere near or around Kent.” 

A pamphlet he co-wrote warned of the dangers of earthquakes on a Shepway site and on the potential effects on “one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world”, although he did not say what those effects might be. He said it was “utter madness” to site a repository that might involve the movement of highly hazardous waste though London and the South East, ignoring the fact that nuclear waste from the two Dungeness nuclear power stations on the south Kent coast had been transported by train through London to storage sites in the North of England for at least 40 years.

Shepway leader Robert Bliss responded "You have co-authored a public report that is so full of emotive statements but lacking in fact, I feel I need to correct the inaccuracies." It was all in vain, however, given the firestorm the initiative had attracted. The District Council withdrew from MRWS in September 2012 after only five months' involvement.

Shepway councillors originally volunteered for the process to secure future employment in an area that will be badly affected when both Dungeness power stations have closed, probably by 2023. But across Kent only a small proportion of the workforce depends on the nuclear industry, so the general hysteria about matters nuclear in the population at large was always likely to scupper any long-term involvement.

The only county where a large proportion of the population do have experience of the nuclear industry is Cumbria, where Sellafield Ltd and BAE Systems in Barrow-in-Furness are by far the largest private employers. As a result, Cumbrian residents have a more realistic idea of the challenges and opportunities an underground nuclear waste repository would bring, which was reflected in the polls undertaken by Copeland and Allerdale District Councils showing 68% and 51% support respectively for involvement in the MRWS process.

This makes the county council’s decision all the more galling. The council leader, Eddie Martin, said one of the main reasons the decision was taken was because the county was not the best place geologically in the UK for such a site. 

But the GDF did not need to be in the best place geologically, it needed to be in a place that was good enough. And this would have been determined by the detailed geological research that would have been undertaken in Stage 4 of the MRWS process, which the county council has now vetoed.

Prof Bill Lee, co-director of the Centre for Nuclear Engineering at Imperial College London, said: "Cumbria has withdrawn much too early in my opinion. The technical arguments put forward against the site were not scientifically convincing, and the process would have benefited from much more scientific analysis to make sure any decisions were based on facts and not myths. That cannot now happen."

Copeland District Council leader Elaine Woodburn, whose authority voted six to one in favour of moving to Stage 4 at an earlier date, said: "I don't know whether a GDF is right for Copeland - and if the next stage finds that it's not then I will be the first to say we don't want it. But we have taken the right decision to try and find out."

And that, surely, would have been the best approach if the county council had been interested in testing the geological suitability of potential sites in Cumbria. But CCC vetoed Stage 4, which demonstrates that other factors were in play.

In his rejection statement Martin said: "Cumbria has a unique and world-renowned landscape which needs to be cherished and protected. While Sellafield and the Lake District have co-existed side by side successfully for decades, we fear that if the area becomes known in the national conscience as the place where nuclear waste is stored underground, the Lake District's reputation may not be so resilient."

The idea that a secure underground repository in Cumbria would affect the Lake District's reputation in a way Sellafield has not done already seems rather strange.

A National Audit Office (NAO) report in November 2012 criticised Sellafield for posing a “significant risk to people and the environment” because of the deteriorating conditions of radioactive waste storage facilities there. The NAO also found that costs of storing nuclear waste at the site were spiralling out of control, with a £900m hike in the ten months prior to the report. 

All the UK's high-level and most of its intermediate-level nuclear waste is stored at Sellafield.

The county council’s rejection statement includes a call for better management and improved facilities at Sellafield, but it is unclear if the site is suitable for long-term nuclear waste storage. 

Finland, Sweden and France have concluded that surface sites are far riskier than underground storage facilities in the long term and are all in the process of building their own. The USA also recently published a strategy document calling for the construction of an underground nuclear waste facility by 2048.

Perhaps Ed Davey knows something the rest of us do not, and a string of local authorities are lining up to offer themselves as candidates for MRWS. I won’t be holding my breath, however. The truth is that Cumbria County Council and the NIMBY campaigners behind it have sabotaged the UK’s only realistic hope for the long-term safe storage of nuclear waste. 

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