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Wednesday, 29 July 2015

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‘Solution will be found – eventually’

SIR – Reaching a decision on whether to participate in the siting process for a national GDF requires confidence that there is a sound but flexible process and some prospect of achieving a safe, licensable and societally acceptable facility.

Decision-makers in Cumbria are right to approach this major commitment cautiously, and may feel beset by a clamour of contradictory opinion, as well as a worrying demand for certainty about aspects of a complex project that will run throughout this century.

Having worked on this problem worldwide for 35 years, I can assure readers that this has never been an easy or certain process, in any country. However, there is international consensus that geological disposal is the right solution and we are seeing real progress with implementation in Canada, France, Finland and Sweden. What is required at this stage of the process in Cumbria is confidence in there being a reasonable prospect of success and an adaptable process that can be scaled to match the nature of each of the succession of decisions that will be needed over the coming years.

How do you measure and judge ‘reasonable prospect’? There are no standard tables of numbers to help here. A GDF that will provide the assured safety that is being sought can be achieved by balancing many factors – the wastes that are put in it, the engineering designs and materials that are chosen to build it, the way in which it is operated and the overall geological environment in which it is built. This means not just the rocks it is built in, but the total deep system, chosen for its stable properties and on the basis of what we know about how it has evolved over millions of years to be the way it is today. There are certainly indicators of a stable and suitable deep environment, but these need to be looked at in terms of total, balanced system behaviour, not just in isolation. There are few indicators that would say ‘stop’, on their own, without a considered evaluation of the larger geological environment and the engineering options for the GDF. Clarity on what factors can combine, and how, to make a geological disposal system provide permanent, passive safety is going to be essential.

Some strong views have emerged on geological suitability, but they are being asserted outside the context of the type of integrated, balanced analysis just mentioned. Views differ, but there are accepted and tested methods for taking proper account of all types and levels of scientific knowledge and expert opinion when taking decisions. These methods also allow a formal approach to be taken to assessing the inevitable uncertainties involved in developing confidence in geological interpretations. Geologists are familiar with dealing with uncertainty – it is a fact of life in all the resource industries and techniques for identifying alternative interpretations, testing for them and adapting to them are well developed. The early stages of MRWS Stage 4 will need to adopt such methods when considering siting possibilities and be inclusive of the spectrum of scientific views.

MRWS Stage 4 thus needs to be flexible. It needs to be able to adapt its investigation and analysis work to the different geological environments that may come forward and to the different site characteristics.

The MRWS programme, as established in 2008, identified only the coarse stages that will be required – it now needs more texture and options. There will be alternative ways forward, depending on the locations that emerge.

Making a start on geological disposal is a major and essential step forward for an industry that is already old, but will be supplying our electricity for the rest of this century. But it is not just one big step. Decision-makers involved in the GDF project in the future will also need to be able to respond flexibly. The lesson from projects in every other country is that plans always evolve over the decades needed to implement geological disposal.

As a nation, we chose to go down the route of inclusive voluntarism to find a GDF site, having failed in the past when we used a purely technically-led approach. This decision changed the game significantly. Voluntarism brings with it a more demanding technical programme and additional uncertainties, but never lets us lose sight of the requirement for a safe solution.

I have no doubt that we will find a solution, but we will need to be patient, take on board alternative views and scientific opinions, be able to cope with the uncertainties and be prepared to adapt the GDF programme as we learn from the results of our work. Provided we recognise these constraints, there seems to be every reason to get involved in what will be a vital, multigenerational project, with considerable benefits for people today and in many decades to come.

Prof Neil CHAPMAN (MCM International and the University of Sheffield)

Chairman of NDA-RWMD independent Technical Advisory Panel

SIR – My councillors will not be involved in the January decision about continuing the search for a site to host high level nuclear waste in Cumbria so I have sent the following to the Cabinet members at Allerdale and Cumbria County Council.

Moving on to geological studies in Stage 4 will have significant consequences.

Any area subjected to a study will face up to a decade of economic and social blight. It is quite understandable that those communities and areas such as Silloth and Ennerdale, which have already been acknowledged by Dr Dearlove as potential sites for exploration, are actively concerned for their future.

Other areas under consideration are likely to react in much the same way. There has been extensive geological research in Cumbria and a great deal of controversy reigns already so whilst any decision to progress to Stage 4 will result in economic damage it is unlikely to yield the promising prospect of a suitable site at the end of that process. This is an analysis shared by many in the county and has now been raised as an issue of concern with the government by the Lake District National Park.

Meanwhile it has been an eventful month at Sellafield culminating in it being described as a nuclear slum by one MP on the visiting Parliamentary committee.

What is abundantly clear is that current storage facilities at Sellafield for high level nuclear waste are unsatisfactory and threaten both the economy, environment and safety of Cumbria. Four years have already been wasted. To extend that by another decade in what is likely to be a fruitless search for suitable geology in this area would be frankly irresponsible. The councils should give priority, and in its wake, employment, to lobbying for a safe surface facility and not waste valuable time, energy and money in seeking to place a nuclear dump in the county.



SIR – More weasel words from Councillor Woodburn (“Valley voices N-waste fears”, The Whitehaven News, December 6). If talk of a repository in Ennerdale is “scaremongering in the extreme”, and Ennerdale is not to be a site for test drilling, just say Ennerdale WILL NOT be a site for test drilling! Simples!

Chris LANE



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