Shine A Light

Public servants and private chats about dumping nuclear waste in West Cumbria

A public consultation is underway on the construction of an underground dump for 70 tonnes of nuclear waste in West Cumbria. Has the decision already been taken during cozy chats in private rooms?

Michael Baron
8 October 2011

A public consultation is underway on the construction of an underground dump for 70 tonnes of nuclear waste in West Cumbria. Has the decision already been taken during cozy chats in private rooms?

On 10 March 2011 the unelected junior minister for energy and climate change Lord Marland of Odstock, travelled 320 miles north to meet council leaders and chief executives of two West Cumbrian local authorities, the chief executive of the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority and Copeland MP Jamie Reed. The latter is well known for his spirited advocacy of the so-called Energy Coast, whose flagship Sellafield is the nuclear processing facility formerly known as Windscale, site of the world’s worst nuclear accident before Three Mile Island (USA), Chernobyl and Fukushima.

A dinner party of eleven individuals met in a private room at the four star Trout Hotel in its “idyllic, picture postcard setting on the bank of The River Derwent” to discuss the progress of the ongoing complex and public consultation process towards the construction of a geological disposal facility or GDF — some might name it a toxic unsafe dump — for high level nuclear waste somewhere 1000 metres underground in West Cumbria.

Nearly everything one needs to know about the dump process (which began in October 2009) is in the  seminal White Paper (Cmd 7386) "Managing Radioactive Waste Safely" published in June 2008. It is proposed that not just the 70 tonnes in some of the cooling ponds at Sellafield, but approximately 4,300 tonnes of spent fuel is to be disposed of in the dump. It's a huge amount of waste. DECC's figures show just under 500,000 cubic metres (or 1/2 million tonnes of waste).

It’s a huge problem that has vexed nuclear reactor operating states such as the UK, Sweden, Finland, France and the USA for more than a decade. The UK, France, Sweden and Finland are leaders in the complex business of researching and developing the right geology and the right engineering.

Popular science writer and convert to nuclear environmentalism, Mark Lynas, in his 2011 book ‘The God Species’ boldly asserts that ‘this is not an ‘unsolved problem. It is not really much of a problem at all’.

When I talked to him recently he claimed waste loses its hazardous nature in a short time and that the deep burial option (see the Finnish film ‘Into Eternity') is an answer to a political problem rooted in fear. While France stores its high level waste, Lynas writes, ‘under the floor in a single room’, it is temporary, and harms no one . There is no environmental crisis. He stressed that exposure to radiation killed no one at Fukushima, and of the 4000 Chernobyl children who contracted thyroid cancer only 15 died. His optimism on risk and nuclear waste is not shared by H.M. Government — why else the 94 page White Paper?

While many environmentalists agree with much of Lynas’s book and its suggested programmes to halt the degradation of planet Earth and maintain life and civilisation, he is clearly wrong on the dangers of undisposed nuclear waste. This is an international concern.

The necessity of a solution to that challenge of what to do with the waste in the UK brought the Minister to Cockermouth.

Of all the communities in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, only the ‘Sellafield’ local authorities — Cumbria, Copeland and Allerdale — expressed the required interest in "an approach based on voluntarism and partnership (as) the best means of siting a geological disposal facility" (White Paper para 6.1).

The three local authorities have worked together to develop a myriad of joint projects around a future dump. Each of them has the right to withdraw from the optimistically named “West Cumbria Managing Radioactive Waste Safely Partnership” but according to the White Paper (para 6.39), it is a right that the parties “should work positively to seek to avoid the need to exercise”. Which may be the reason for that Cockermouth dinner.

The leader of Copeland Borough Council, in a post dinner party letter of 14 March, anticipated the move “towards the Decision to Participate stage in the Managing Radioactive Waste process by March 2012”.

Acknowledging that letter the unelected Minister Lord Marland is grateful that “West Cumbria MRWS have understood the national interest” and by implication put constituents’ health and safety aside in favour of the ‘national interest’.

When that is coupled with another Minister from DECC Charles Hendry MP releasing a statement in July that he expects the geological disposal facility to be open to receive radioactive waste in 2029, the anti-dump campaigners in Cumbria realised — one used the word ‘fraud’ — that Government is set on having the radioactive waste dump somewhere in West Cumbria.

The ‘national interest’ may well be forced upon the Partnership and that very well managed process will do its best to coax local opinion even if by the barest majority into a compliant acceptance. That is, acceptance of a deep burial in strata that one eminent, independent geologist Professor David Smythe has described as unsuitable by reason of the complex geology and hydro-geology of West Cumbria.

Moreover the scale of the construction project — up to 30 truckloads of radioactive waste a day from Sellafield to the dump over a period of years has not been imagined by its likely 'host communities' (White Paper para 6.28) wherever they may be in West Cumbria. Nor the sheer quantity of rock to be excavated, stored and then used as backfill in the tunnels where the waste is contained.

Who can stop this destruction of landscape and halt the process towards a dump in the wrong place? The pressure to maintain and increase employment — 1000 new jobs for the construction and future management from labourer and driver to manager and scientist — and a new nuclear reactor planned for the Sellafield site are powerful incentives to the local authorities Partnership saying yes at every stage.

Perhaps only a NIMBY rebellion by parishes and two councils who are not parties to decision-making will prevent the 'national interest’ trumping the local. Perhaps landscape NGOs such as the National Trust and Friends of the Lake District and backed up by the Lake District National Park Authority will say no. Millions of visitors and the tourist industry cannot be ignored and a dump that lies underground the Lake District might put at risk the application for World Heritage status.

Say ‘no’ to the nation’s nuclear waste dump in Cumbria and save the lakes, the fells, the network of fields and villages from destruction by a building and engineering project in a seriously flawed geology, and not so dissimilar in size from the Channel Tunnel.

Michael Baron is a retired solicitor, a Green Party member and an MBE for services to autism. He lives in Cockermouth, Cumbria.

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