The fiasco on the west coast mainline coincides with deepening unease about another vast exercise that depends on trust in government and civil service calculations.
Exactly this issue of trust has also been highlighted this morning by the leader of the opposition, Ed Miliband. The beautiful arc of the west coast in Cumbria is seeing growing unease about proposals to bury higher activity radioactive waste
That flagged up 11 October as a key date when Cumbrian councils would meet to debate a report based on three years of consultation and discussion. But the three principal authorities – Cumbria county and Allerdale and Copeland districts – have delayed this stage until January and asked the government for “further information and clarity”.
Below – Letter to Baroness Verma, minister in the department of energy and climate change, following a meeting with her last week:
The delay reflects the increasing unhappiness of Cumbrians, foused through smaller bodies than the large councils, including parish councils, churches and other groups. The county is familiar with the tensions between nuclear power as (a) a risk and (b) a crucial employer, especially on the ‘nuclear coast’ where trains north from Barrow and south from Carlisle empty and fill at Sellafield with a tide of workers, morning and night.
Councillor Eddie Martin, Labour leader of Cumbria county council, says:
This is not a decision which can be taken lightly and members don’t yet feel we’re in a position where we have all the information needed to make a decision on whether to continue to engage in the West Cumbria Managing Radioactive Waste Safely Partnership process.
The government has always made it clear that if necessary, the process can be ‘paused’ while we seek clarification on unresolved issues. We’re at that stage now and the next three months will involve all three councils working closely with the Government to get to a position where a decision can be made.
Councillor Elaine Woodburn, Labour leader of Copeland borough council, says a little more reluctantly:
We already have a considerable amount of information from the work of the MRWS Partnership, although there are many questions that could only be answered if further studies and investigations are carried out as part of the siting process.
However, in the meantime we will be working with the county council and Allerdale over the next few months to get further clarification from Government on some of the points in the Partnership’s report.
The third of the trio, Alan Smith, Labour leader of Allerdale, says:
The West Cumbria MRWS Partnership spent a lot of time looking at these issues and engaging with local people. The councils need to take full account of the Partnership’s report and ensure they have the information they need before making a decision.
The Partnership’s report presented the issues and local opinions but did not go so far as to recommend that councils should take part, as the Government hopes, in the proposed search for a burial site. Without their participation, the idea would almost certainly be doomed.
In a section to which the west coast rail debacle lends extra weight, it underlined that ‘a lack of trust appears to us to be at the root of many of the key concerns raised by the public and stakeholders’. This is a central argument of the many objectors, who have also drawn up a wealth of expert advice on the risks of burial and the complex local geology; anyone who has walked the Lake District fells will get their point.
The Partnership is also particularly concerned about the worth of government guarantees that councils would be able to withdraw from the process right up to the point where work was otherwise able to start on building the nuclear grave. The changing timescale for this has added to concern: original estimates by the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority that burial could start in 2075 crept closer to 2040 and then, in a leaked departmental memo, to talk of 2029. The three councils now say that they want:
• Better understanding of the detail and timescale involved in meeting the government’s commitment to make this right of withdrawal legally binding.
• Clarification from the government about the basis on which a community benefits package in return for accepting the waste would be negotiated.
• The consideration of alternative radioactive waste management solutions in parallel with the MRWS programme in case a suitable site is not identified, either because the geology is not suitable or for other reasons.
The last request is all-important and could sink the whole proposal, although the geological question is naturally one of the main issues which the proposed detailed study would investigate. The Partnership says:
Although a few geologists believe there is already enough evidence to show that West Cumbria’s geology is unsuitable, most of the experts agree that there is not enough definitive information available at this time.
The process to secure more detailed information about the geology of the area will involve a series of studies and investigations and will therefore take a substantial period of time. This would mean that the uncertainty about whether there is anywhere with suitable geology will continue for a number of years.
The councils also plan to use the extra three months to ensure funding for community representatives to monitor and scrutinise the work if the detailed study does go ahead. They will then hold the postponed 11 October meeting in January.