Decision on Cumbrian nuclear waste storage facility imminent


  By Lynda Williamson
Cumbrian councils will reveal this week whether they wish to enter the next round in the search for an underground nuclear waste storage facility for the UK.
The decision was due to be made last October but was postponed after concerns were raised over the council’s right to withdraw from the contract.

Local Labour councillor, David Southward explained, saying: “I blame the government because the white paper was deliberately vague about the right to withdraw and people distrust it.”

Six years ago the then UK Labour government invited councils from around the UK to volunteer to host the storage facility in exchange for a generous benefits package.  It was hoped that a community could be found that would accept, and even welcome, the facility rather than the government having to impose it against the wishes of local people.

After some initial interest, all but one council has pulled out of the process.  Cumbria is now the only candidate left who may be willing to accept the repository.

Cumbria is already host to a low level nuclear waste store for which it receives £1.5 million pounds a year and the high level waste which would be put into the new facility is currently stored above ground at Sellafield.  The nuclear industry is one of the biggest employers in the region giving work to thousands of people.

Sellafield alone contributes over £2 billion pounds to the local economy.  The industry invests in the area providing funds for youth clubs, museums, theatres, even lifeboats but some environmental campaigners have raised concerns over the perception that the relationship between the industry and local councillors is too close. 

Elaine Woodburn, leader of Copeland Council vehemently refutes that suggestion: “I live here, was born and bred, I have family here, now and in the future.  If anybody thinks that I would do anything to harm that, well, I find that quite insulting.”

The Lake District National Park Authority has, however, warned about a possible negative effect on tourism which also provides around £2 billion pounds to the local economy and employment for 56,000. 

They have informed the government that they believe that the facility “would not be in the long-term interests of the Lake District.”

The underground facility could be up to 23 sq km and as much as a 1000m deep, but above ground there would be only a few buildings taking up around 1 sq km.  High level nuclear waste would be brought in by train twice a week, processed and stored underground.  The facility would be sealed after 120 years but the waste would be considered dangerous for 100,000 years.

If the Cumbrian councils do decide to proceed to the next stage, then geological surveys would take place over the next 15 years to ascertain the site’s suitability – a previous plan for a repository was shelved in 1994 as the underlying rock was found to be unsuitable.  If the facility is given the go ahead it would be operational by 2033.

The decision will take place as the Tory party in Scotland calls for replacement nuclear power stations to be built but Sir David King, former chief scientific advisor to the UK Government has warned that uncertainty over how to deal with nuclear waste could delay construction of new nuclear plants;

“Implementation of a final policy solution for radioactive waste in Britain is long overdue and … if we don’t manage the legacy issue with the best science this in itself could hinder nuclear new build.”

Many governments throughout the world have struggled to find a permanent solution to safely deal with waste produced by the nuclear industry.  None, so far, have succeeded and tens of thousands of tonnes of high level radioactive waste is stored in temporary facilities.

The Fukushima disaster of 2011 brought into sharp focus the danger presented by high level nuclear waste and environmental campaigners question the wisdom of constructing new nuclear plants before the problem of what to do with waste is solved.