Long way around

27 March 2011

The 1976 report of the UK Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution on Nuclear Energy and the Environment concluded that it would be ethically undesirable to commit to a large-scale programme of nuclear power without a method for dealing with radioactive waste. Thirty-five years on, the UK still has yet to sort out where and how these hazardous wastes are to be emplaced or stored for the long term.

In the 1990s Nirex (the Nuclear Industry Radioactive Waste Executive) planned to build an underground laboratory that was intended to be the first stage of a deep ILW repository, on land adjoining Sellafield in West Cumbria. A planning inquiry rejected the application in 1996. An appeal was rejected a year later by the Secretary of State on the grounds that the site was geologically unsuitable; the site selection process was flawed and the scientific understanding inadequate. More than 10 years of work and £100 million of work by Nirex was rejected, setting back the UK nuclear waste disposal process for a decade.

Thirteen years later, West Cumbria is back in the frame to house a deep geological facility. So what has changed with the three parameters given as reasons for rejection of the Nirex proposal? Clearly the geology remains the same. But there have been changes in the two others. Scientific understanding has grown as other nuclear nations have investigated deep geological disposal.

The secretive process that led Nirex to select that site—a mix of geology and pragmatism—was only made public in 2005. A list of hundreds of potential sites was compiled. This was then reduced to 165 sites in public ownership. Application of geological principles reduced this to 10 land-based and two offshore options. Another process that included waste transport factors was used to whittle this down to two sites: Sellafield in Copeland, West Cumbria and Dounreay in Scotland. Sellafield was chosen as the site because it had produced and stored a high proportion of the waste requiring long-term management. The site selection exercise had begun in 1987 intent on identifying the best sites. But as the exercise progressed, the concept of ‘best’ was modified to include areas whose economies relied on the nuclear industry and would be more inclined to accept the facility.

The current process for identifying a site is quite different. In 2003 the government set up an independent Committee on Radioactive Waste Management to consider how to manage the UK’s higher activity radioactive waste in the long term. In 2006, after spending £5 million, the committee of 11 agreed 15 recommendations, including recognition of geological disposal as the best available long-term solution; the need for safe and secure interim storage, and further R&D.

In 2007, government accepted most of these recommendations, and issued an open invitation to communities to express interest in discussing hosting a geological facility in exchange for a benefits package. Then it sat back and waited.

The response was predictable and underwhelming: West Cumbria promptly stepped forward but no other interest was forthcoming. Three years later no other area has expressed an interest in even discussing hosting a repository. In West Cumbria a partnership made up of two adjoining Borough councils—Copeland and Allerdale—and the Cumbria County Council will decide by 2012 if they wish to take a decision to progress to the next stage.

Although no potential sites will be named until further along in the process, the results of a desk-based exercise to screen out unsuitable areas of West Cumbria were published in October. This excluded much of Allerdale and the north of Copeland. The exclusion exercise seems to leave the coastal area around Sellafield right back in the frame, especially as Allerdale Borough Council is wobbling: in November 2010 it voted down by 19 votes to 9 a motion to withdraw the council’s expression of interest. Expect the antipathy to mount as the process continues.

Despite changes to make the new site selection process voluntary and transparent, it may well end up the same way as the unilateral NIREX process. I’d be prepared to put money on land around the Sellafield site getting the nomination. However, given the pace of progress so far I doubt I’ll be around to collect my winning

Author Info:

Penny Hitchin is Associate Editor, Nuclear Engineering International

FilesReactor-by-reactor, system-by-system summary from JAIF on 29 March
Fukushima-Daiichi parameters 29 March

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