What next for nuclear waste?

Ross Hayman of public relations and stakeholder engagement consultancy Copper says the government should learn from its most recent failed attempt to find a home for nuclear waste. The time for delay is past.

The search for an underground site for the long-term disposal of nuclear waste spluttered to a halt earlier this year, when a handful of Cumbria county councillors voted not to move to the next stage of the process – the start of geological surveys.

That was something of a shock to the nuclear industry, and in particular to the UK Government, whose publicly-stated policy for the long-term disposal of high-level radioactive waste is to bury it deep underground.

The decision immediately cast doubt on whether new nuclear power stations could be built in the UK – given that the Government’s National Policy Statement for Nuclear Power Generation (NPS EN-6) says that the waste from new nuclear would be buried.

So, as geological disposal remains Government policy, and there is no Plan B, it was no surprise that in September the Department for Energy and Climate Change announced a public consultation on a new process to find an underground disposal site, in the hope of getting a “yes” next time rather than a “no”.

But why should the outcome be different next time? Is the Government just trying to move the goal-posts or is the process going to be significantly different?

The old “Managing Radioactive Waste Safely (MRWS)” process was based on voluntarism and participation. In other words, communities were asked to put their hands up if they fancied the idea of an underground nuclear waste dump on their doorstep. Then, after a full discussion about the pros and cons, safety, environmental impact, economic benefit, community investment and so on, if they still liked the idea, they would put their hands up again to go to the next stage – evaluation of local geology to see if a suitable site could be found locally for a giant cavern up to a kilometre below ground and a cubic kilometre in size.

Cumbria is already home to most of the UK’s high-level radioactive waste, which is held in vast storage “ponds” above ground at Sellafield, which employs thousands of people in the west of the county where there are few other major employers. So it was no surprise that Cumbria put its hand up at the beginning, and embarked on a three-year consultation process. At the end of the process earlier this year, the borough councils of Copeland (the local authority for Sellafield) and neighbouring Allerdale voted to press ahead. Cumbria county council, however, delegated the decision to its executive committee, which narrowly voted against. And that was that – because the MRWS “triple lock” process required all three local authorities to sign up to the next stage.

The end of the MRWS process sparked recriminations in Cumbria. The people of Copeland already live day-to-day with the UK’s nuclear waste stockpile on their doorstep, and with more waste on its way they want a long-term solution. They worry less about the alleged risk of a future earthquake damaging an underground facility than they do about a similar act of nature, or terrorism, happening tomorrow and spreading the above-ground radioactivity around West Cumbria.

West Cumbria has little in common with other parts of the county, like Carlisle and the tourist honeypot of the Lake District. The local economy has become largely dependent on the nuclear industry since the closure of its coal mines. Many locals felt they had been betrayed by people from outside the immediate area who didn’t understand the issues and were more worried about what holidaymakers might think (although income from tourism is a valid consideration).

And while there was a vocal campaign against geological disposal – “don’t dump Cumbria” protest meetings were attended by hundreds of people in Keswick and further afield – the Government’s commitment to voluntarism meant neither it, nor the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, could put the argument in favour without being accused of trying to influence the process.

In short, the opposition went unopposed.

So, what next? The proposed new process announced by DECC in September will still be based on voluntarism, participation and a continuing right to withdraw. But this time, more information about the socio-economic benefits will be made available earlier, and there will be a two-stage process for volunteer communities – “learning” and “focusing”.

Local people will be represented by their district council or equivalent (county councils not being seen as “local” enough). At the end of the “learning” phase, the “representative authority” and the Government will decide together if they wish to proceed to “focusing” – bringing together the host council, DECC and NDA on a steering group to examine potential sites. Crucially, “focusing” also includes starting the flow of community benefit money. If a suitable site is found, a “positive demonstration of community support” will be needed for a geological disposal facility (GDF) to go ahead; whether that means a referendum, an opinion survey or something else remains to be seen.

Detailed plans for a GDF will be brought forward by the NDA as a Nationally Significant Infrastructure Project under the terms of the Planning Act 2008. This means it will then follow the same process as for a new power station or overhead transmission line; local authorities and communities will be consulted, but the planning application will go straight to the Planning Inspectorate for decision. This is entirely sensible – if the Planning Act had been in place before the start of the last MRWS process, the NDA would probably have followed that route anyway. But, it will require a new National Policy Statement on nuclear waste disposal, or technically there won’t be a need case – whatever the existence of the Sellafield ponds might indicate to the contrary.

Opponents of the previous MRWS process will say the proposed new process, like its predecessor, is starting from the wrong place. They feel a national geological survey should take place first to identify potential sites, and then communities in those areas should be asked if they are interested. They speculate that the best ground conditions might be London clay, but doubt if Londoners will be keen.

No expert in nuclear issues, waste management or public safety would consider moving thousands of tonnes of radioactive waste around the country. It seems inconceivable that the waste will ever leave West Cumbria, but the UK as a whole must take responsibility for the problem – and our generation must solve it.

Many decades ago, a political decision was taken to dump nuclear waste above ground in a remote corner of the UK and worry about it later. That place was West Cumbria, and later has now arrived.


From New Power, October 2013.

Also in this issue:

Cash-out reform; PV’s boom and bust; triad costs under the microscope; are we close to the end game on EMR?

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