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How to bury nuclear waste under the democratic carpet in Cumbria

Nuclear waste is a problem - dangerous and long-lived, it needs geologically "secure" sites to be laid, one hopes, to rest. But in the UK, the government finds it more convenient to shoe-horn it in to geologically delicate areas under a carefully managed sham of local democracy. The national public good is being obscured by the narrowest of interests, to the potential grave danger of future generations

How would it be, if the Government asked if you wanted radioactive waste buried below your town, you said NO! And then they did it anyway? That is the dilemma facing communities around Sellafield in Cumbria north-west England, aka the Lake District, home of romantic poets, most famous tourist region of the UK and aspirant site for World Heritage status. This disposal site for radioactive waste is proposed to be a national facility, and will be a project similar in size to the Channel Tunnel. Consequently that alone is likely to cost upwards of £30 Billion, in addition to the existing costs of decommissioning cleanup. So this is a problem about which a national conversation is legitimate. During March and April, the grass-roots parish councils across the Lake District are deciding they do not wish to proceed with this waste investigation. How will government react? 

The Problem

Radioactive waste is, of course, a problem. Its not something that communities in any country normally queue up to accept. The UK was first to deploy civil nuclear power in 1956, but waste disposal has experienced serial inertia amongst technocrats and politicians, so that the problem of nuclear waste accumulating now means that the UK is some 30 years behind peer-group nations in its plans for acceptable recycling, re-use, or disposal.

Been here before

The UK has to its credit, or perhaps shame, attempted nuclear waste disposal at least twice before. In the 1970’s the whole country was searched secretly, and no sites were developed because of public suspicion. In the 1980’s the country was searched again – and Longlands Farm near the Sellafield nuclear works in west Cumbria was chosen - not because it was technically best, but because it was close to the waste and, it was anticipated, would have a compliant population.
The site failed because of scientific evidence at a 66 day Planning Inquiry. In 2012, this is the third time around. This time the rules have been changed, so these is no local democratic right to a planning inquiry on the national issues – it is treated just as would be an application to build a supermarket. The Plan remains remarkably similar to the 1970’s and 1990’s: geological disposal, by finding a suitable site, constructing an underground grid of tunnels similar in size to the Channel Tunnel, depositing the waste, and sealing this for hundreds of thousands of years.

What geology is needed ?

The expected international guidelines are quite clear for radioactive waste disposal. A simple geology, slow groundwater flow, correct groundwater chemistry, predictable into the future for one million years. In laymans language, that is flat rocks, with no faults, away from hills and stagnant groundwater deficient in dissolved oxygen. Unfortunately, these guidelines are not legally rigid, so the UK can ignore them.

The Problem

There are five problems here The geology has not changed; in 15 years no new work has been done. This is one of the basically unsuitable sites in the UK, because of its geological complexity (it’s a subsided volcano with many extra faults), there is upward flow of groundwater past the waste, heading to the surface; and the water is chemically “oxidized” – which makes uranium soluble. The waste will be even more difficult to dispose of, because now the plan is to add in spent fuel and high level radioactive waste as well – whose hot temperatures de-stabilise the minimal natural barriers Science has provided more problems. Its now realized that radioactive gas can leak to the surface within 60 years, that the copper canisters to isolate radioactive iodine may corrode, and waste heat will crack the rocks and lift the land surface Site selection – this is still based on politics, not on security of the public. And its next to or even underneath the UK’s favourite National Park. Social - a project sized like the channel tunnel in the rural Lake District; decades of construction workers; two pyramid-sized mounds of rubble on the surface for 150 years; a new surface “cooling facility” to chill extra hot waste for 150 years until it can go below ground. And a 25km2 site.

The scam

First take Government responsibility for waste disposal from the Environment department and give it to the department of Energy. Not nearly as many environmental problems to worry about.

Second, write a White Paper policy document inventing the idea of “Volunteerism”. That is unique in the world, and it means that that a few Councillors voting for now on the surface, counts for more than all the £400 million of scientific investigation during the planning inquiry held in 1995-96, with its marshaling of evidence from many national and global experts.

Third, ensure the favourite local councils are ready, ask for volunteers and wait less than a month for them to apply. The UK Royal Society said “It seems to us most unlikely that such work can be done, carefully, robustly and credibly in a few weeks”. Even the White Paper expected a period of internal discussion.

Fourth, hire some public relations consultants to talk to anybody who will listen, and claim that by talking the problems have been addressed, or even solved. These consultants are paid by the government giving a grant to the Councils, to employ Consultants, to form a Partnership where the dominant votes are held by the Councils, to impartially advise … the same Councils .

Fifth, hire the national British Geological Survey, with a carefully worded question, to define the areas which are NOT suitable, based on a history of mining. Then claim the rest of the areas ARE suitable – including the sites which were rejected by Planning Inquiry.

Sixth, allow everybody who wants to, to write in as a “consultation”, even though the Councillors who make the decision don’t need to be bound by its findings.

Seventh, ignore the votes of 75% of the local parish councils across the region who democratically vote against the investigations.

Eighth, keep it secure, by only giving votes on proceeding to a few Councillors, not even to the whole Planning Committee.

Ninth, make really sure, by retaining the right in central government to over-rule anything – in the White Paper “In the event that at some point in the future, voluntarism and partnership does not look likely to work Government reserves the right to explore other approaches.”

The results of the “official” consultation, are expected to be published in mid-May by the consultants hired by the local Councils

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More information at Haszeldine's homepage. He is writing as a personal representation of his research.

About the author
Stuart Haszeldine is Professor of Sedimentary Geology at the University of Edinburgh. He has been a government advisor on many energy policy issues. His current research interests include Carbon Capture and Storage technologies as well as radioactive waste disposal methods.
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More information at Stuart Haszeldine's homepage 

Stuart Haszeldine is Professor of Geology at the University of Edinburgh. 

He has researched and taught on nuclear power and radioactive waste since 1991. He presented evidence at the 1995 Longlands Farm, Sellafield planning inquiry, and was employed as a consultant in 2011 by MRWS.