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Thursday, 21 August 2014

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It is over to you – does Cumbria want an underground nuclear dump?

Cumbrians have a huge decision to make this year. Its implications could be with us for the next 200,000 years. We are going to have to decide whether to allow Britain’s high-level radioactive waste to be buried deep underground at a site somewhere in our county.

Nuclear dump graphic
An image of what an over ground radioactive waste disposal facility might look like

The waste will include dangerous substances such as plutonium, which has a half-life of 25,000 years. That means that after 25,000 years it will be half as dangerous as it is now – and only after 200,000 years could it be considered safe.

The Government believes burying substances like these deep underground is the safest way to dispose of them.

But opponents argue that there’s nothing safe about waste that remains lethal for centuries – with one protesting: “Nuclear power is the most dangerous way to boil a kettle that man has ever created.”

At the moment this high-level waste is stored above the ground. But as long as it lies there, the Government argues, it could be susceptible to terrorist attack. Underground storage – known as “geological storage” – is also the way most other countries with radioactive waste dispose of theirs.

The objectors counter that storing the waste above the ground where it can be monitored has to be better than putting it underground, out of sight and out of mind.

When the Government first started looking for an underground waste dump, it insisted that it would not force it on anyone.

Instead it asked to hear from “volunteer communities” that might be interested in hosting it and wanted to find out more, without committing to anything.

The only volunteers it received were from Cumbria. Cumbria County Council, Allerdale Borough Council and Copeland Borough Council all said they were prepared to looked into it – but weren’t promising anything.

And certain areas of the Cumbrian coast, near former coal and iron mines, have definitely been ruled out in any case.

The three interested councils have set up the Managing Radioactive Waste Safely Partnership. It bringing in other bodies – the other councils, the Lake District National Park Authority, Cumbria Tourism, trade unions and churches – to find out what it might mean for the area, and what locals think about it.

The partnership is chaired by Tim Knowles, the county council’s cabinet member for environment and transport. He says it’s an important point to bear in mind that hosting the nuclear waste will be entirely voluntary. If Cumbrians decide they don’t want it then they won’t have to have it.

“This is the first time the Government has left it up to local communities,” Mr Knowles explains. “We can’t be told that this is going to happen whether we want it or not. It depends on whether the general public are supportive.”

But he does add that something has got to be done with the waste, if not here then elsewhere.

“The current, above-ground storage is just not acceptable in the long run. There has to be a long-term solution and the Government believes that is geological storage.

“Keeping it safe and secure for many centuries is an absolute requirement. To keep packaging and repackaging it and moving it from one site to another is just not sensible.

“It’s expensive and it leaves the burden to future generations. It’s up to this generation to sort it out.”

Besides, 70 per cent of Britain’s high-level radioactive waste is already in this county and Mr Knowles says: “Whatever happens to it, whether it is stored here or goes somewhere else, it will involve people in Cumbria in one way or another.”

The most obvious benefit to keeping it here would be economic. The Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, which is in charge of delivering the facility, estimates it will bring 980 jobs in planning and construction over 25 years.

The first 440 jobs will come over the first 10 years, in investigating different areas of the county and identifying which could be suitable for the site.

Then over the next 15 years, 840 people would be needed to build it. It could be anywhere between 200 and 1,000 metres underground and between one and four times the size of Sellafield site. The rock excavated would be close to the amount removed for the Channel Tunnel.

Many of the jobs would be highly skilled ones, and Mr Knowles says: “West Cumbria is a world centre for the nuclear industry. It looks like there’s going to another power station built adjacent to Sellafield, so it’s an important part of our economy.”

He also points out that nuclear energy is beginning to lose its image problem, as more of us become aware of the threat posed by climate change. Nuclear power stations may create radioactive waste – but at least they don’t pump carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

“There’s been a marked change in public opinion,” he notes. “I’m not saying people are in love with it, or that it’s particularly popular. But with issues like global warming, there’s a greater acceptance of nuclear energy – it’s regarded as ‘a good thing’. We’re in a different era now.

“And it’s not a done deal. It will be a genuine consultation, unlike some we’ve heard of.”

So public meetings are being held in 12 different venues across the county, starting on Wednesday and running until Friday, February 10, where anyone can air their views. An opinion poll of 1,000 residents in Allerdale and Copeland – the districts most likely to house the site – will also be conducted.

The pollsters are certain to hear strong objections. There are those who are opposed to nuclear energy in any form. To Marianne Birkby, founder of Radiation Free Lakeland, it hasn’t lost its image problem.

“Nuclear power is a cancer factory,” she says. “It’s the most dangerous way to boil a kettle that man has ever created.”

Nor is she convinced by the economic consideration. “The jobs argument seems very alluring and persuasive. But nuclear power has deterred some tourists from coming here and has destroyed some jobs in agriculture.

“That’s why the cheese factory pulled out of Lillyhall – because nuclear waste was going to be treated nearby. It’s the supermarket effect. It has a detrimental effect on other jobs.”

And she points out that the sheer size and scale of a potential dump could be more than Cumbria could cope with.

“This is a hole in the ground that will rival the biggest mine in the world, a copper mine in the Congo. If it was a mine everyone would be opposed to it.

“A big hole would be bad enough – but they want to fill it with nuclear waste.”

Another group mobilising opposition is Cumbrians Opposed to a Radioactive Environment (CORE). Campaign co-ordinator Martin Forwood disputes the safety of underground storage.

“Our view has always been that the waste should be kept above the ground in custom-built stores where it can be monitored, managed, moved, repackaged as necessary and so on.

“Once it’s down there, there will be no way you can get to it to check it. It could become a major problem for future generations. If it’s that safe, then why not put a nuclear power station underground?”

The above-ground stores, CORE believes, should be built at the sites where the waste originated – at the nuclear power stations themselves.

“Then there would be no need to transport nuclear waste anywhere,” he points out.

That inevitably means there would be a big store near Sellafield, where 70 per cent of Britain’s high-level radioactive waste is created – and Mr Forwood accepts this.

“We’re not NIMBYs. We just don’t believe it should be underground. Keep it here, and let’s have no more waste coming in and no waste going out.”

He also argues that no new nuclear reactors should be built until the waste problem is resolved, and in the meantime we should focus our attentions on finding renewable energy sources.

“I know people moan like mad about windfarms. Some could have been located more sympathetically, but offshore windfarms are an option.

“So is solar power – and we haven’t even begun to investigate tidal energy. There also needs to be more energy efficiency and conservation.”

And with the Government promising that underground waste disposal is not going to be forced on anyone, he points out: “You’ve got to have a community that volunteers to have it and a community that has the right geology, and I don’t believe they will get both those requirements.

“In the next five to 10 years they will find that the whole thing is not going to work. I expect it will rumble on for a few more years and eventually come to a dead end.

“In that time they could be getting on with building proper stores above ground, on the site of origin of the waste, and the whole issue would be done and dusted.”

Have your say

Yes West Cumbria is the appropiate place to store nuclear waste, I certainly do not want to see it stored anywhere near London or the South East.

Posted by Evil McBad on 6 February 2012 at 13:47

No !!!!!!!!! It wasn't feasible 10years ago and isn't now. Do the right thing Knowles and say no.

Posted by chris on 1 February 2012 at 13:37

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