Cumbria nuclear waste dump:
What are councils considering?
Britain needs to find a site for the long-term underground storage of high-level radioactive waste.
With some of it staying dangerous for up to 100,000 years, the government’s agreed solution is to bury it – permanently.
Three Cumbria councils are due to vote on Wednesday on whether to proceed to the next stage in the process of investigating whether such a facility would be possible – and safe – in the county.
What does the government want to build?
The underground storage facility would be up to four times the size of Sellafield – between 6 sq km and 23 sq km (2.5 and 9 sq miles).
What is radioactive waste?
- Material containing levels of radioactivity hazardous to humans and the environment
- Usually a by-product of nuclear power generation – 95% of UK’s radioactive waste comes from the nuclear power industry
- Waste is categorised by its radioactivity level – high (heat-generating), intermediate and low
- High level waste (HLW) is the liquid by-product of reprocessing highly-radioactive spent nuclear fuel
- HLW is converted into glass blocks within steel containers, then placed in a store where it is cooled by air – for at least 50 years
At its smallest, it would be about the size of Workington or Whitehaven; at its biggest, larger than Carlisle.
Waste would be stored in underground vaults at a depth of between 200m (656ft) and 1,000m (3,280ft) and there would be some buildings on the surface.
About 1,000 construction workers would take about 15 years to complete it at an estimated cost of between £12bn and £20bn.
Currently, radioactive waste is stored above ground in various “long-term temporary” sites around the UK, mostly at Sellafield.
In its final report, the West Cumbria Managing Radioactive Waste Safely (MRWS) Partnership – set up to coordinate discussions – said there could be “positive and negative impacts”.
Concerns include the noise and traffic caused by construction and possible effects on landscape, tourism, investment and jobs, the report said.
But the partnership said: “Our overall opinion is that, at this stage, we are fairly confident that an acceptable process can be put in place to assess and mitigate negative impacts, and maximise positive impacts.”
Benefits and positive opinion
The waste needs to go somewhere and MRWS is the only group still considering an underground storage facility in its area.
March 2009 – West Cumbria Managing Radioactive Waste Safely (MRWS) Partnership is formed by Copeland and Allerdale Borough Councils and Cumbria County Council.
November 2009 – MRWS starts to inform residents about government plans to store radioactive waste underground.
March 2010 – a public meeting is held to discuss the possibilities.
June 2010 – a geological survey starts to assess which areas are unsuitable.
November 2010 – people are again asked for their views but West Cumbria Friends of the Earth, describes the consultation as “tokenistic.”
September 2011 – MRWS members visit a research facility in France to find out about geological disposal in other countries.
November 2011 – a four-month consultation starts.
Feb 2012 – a study is published looking at how to counter bad publicity created by the research.
May 2012 – the results of an Ipsos Mori poll suggest a majority is in favour of considering hosting the facility. In Copeland, which covers Sellafield, 68% of people backed entering formal talks with government. Across Cumbria as a whole, 53% were in favour and 33% opposed.
July 2012 – MRWS publishes its final report. It says a suitable rock formation that could act as an effective barrier would be essential for the construction of a safe disposal facility.
October 2012 – The three councils ask the government for more time and further information before deciding whether to allow detailed studies and investigations to take place.
January 2013 – that decision is due to be made.
Dungeness in Kent, who had initially shown interest, withdrew at the end of 2012 in the face of opposition from residents.
The government, keen to attract volunteers, rather than impose the proposal on an unwilling area, has promised certain benefits, such as money for tourism marketing and clean-up, for any council which agreed to accept the storage facility.
Advocates of the plans say it will protect, and create, nuclear industry jobs, with more than 9,000 people already working at Sellafield.
Jamie Reed, Labour MP for Copeland, which encompasses the plant, said: “Cumbria stands to benefit hugely, in a genuinely unprecedented fashion, should a Geological Disposal Facility (GDF) ever be sited here.”
He stressed the “investment package” must be suitable, the final decision must “rest with a local referendum not politicians” and unsuitable geology would put paid to the whole scheme.
Lynn Berger, who runs the Woolpack Inn near Boot in the Eskdale Valley, is more concerned about the effect of “scaremongering” on tourism than the facility itself.
“It’s not going to make any difference to us from a radiation point of view,” she said.
“And, if anything, everything is so much more controlled because it [Sellafield] is there. The house isn’t going to fall down, we’re not going to bash a hole in the cellar wall and find the beer turns green.”
John Rowlands, of Romar Innovate in Whitehaven, is also positive: “We’ve had waste stores at Sellafield before and it hasn’t affected the industry.
“The nuclear industry has worked alongside tourism for as long as I can remember.”
There are concerns about safety and, particularly, the perception of safety among tourists and investors.
Critics are also concerned about visual damage to the landscape and the effect on farming.
Some point out the research is pointlessly going over old ground, citing a plan by Nirex, the agency then responsible for the disposal of nuclear waste, to build an underground waste laboratory in the 1990s which was scrapped after a planning inspector ruled the area’s geology made it unsafe.
Former Nirex inspector, Chris McDonald, has said he was “very surprised” West Cumbria was again being suggested as a potential site and “the probability of their finding a suitable site is low”.
The Lake District National Park Authority has already told the government that a repository “would not be in the long-term interests of the Lake District” and would risk the area’s “brand image”.
Its chairman, Bill Jefferson, has said the effects on the landscape and tourism could be disastrous and that tourism brings more income to the area than the nuclear industry.
Campaigner Harry Marsland, from Keswick, has said a “nuclear dump will do significant damage” to the area’s image.
“In Cumbria tourism is worth £2bn per annum, and employs 56,000 people directly, plus it provides the work for countless trades people, suppliers and retailers. Let’s be clear, it depends upon the Lake District,” he said.
Cumbria County Council, Copeland Borough Council and Allerdale Borough Council will decide whether to move to the next stage of a process that is still decades away from completion, even if approved.
They have sought further assurances from the government, including clarification on when, exactly, they could legally withdraw from the process should they want to.
“Stage 4” would involve undertaking vast geological investigations, properly testing theories for and against, and holding formal talks with the government over any “community benefits package”.
Unsuitable sites will be ruled out and, if any remain, further tests will be carried out, including seismic surveys.
If any site is ultimately deemed acceptable construction could begin as soon as 2025.
For more on this story watch Inside Out at 19:30 GMT on BBC One on Monday 28 January.
Source: BBC News