Nuclear new build programme faces uncertainty

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Britain’s nuclear new build programme is facing fresh uncertainty amid fears that Cumbria county council will postpone or even reject plans to host a permanent storage facility for the country’s nuclear waste.

Local politicians have warned that the council is increasingly wary about volunteering to store hundreds of thousands of tonnes of radioactive material underground amid the rolling hills of the north-west.

Jamie Reed, MP for Copeland in Cumbria, home to Sellafield, where waste is currently processed and temporarily stored, said the county council was likely to block the proposals to host the £12bn nuclear research and disposal facility. Mr Reed, who supports the project, warned that a No vote would jeopardise the economic future of the area.

The decision will come down to a crucial vote on October 11. Cumbria’s David Southward, a local Labour councillor, predicted the cabinet would defer a decision pending further government guarantees of the council’s right to pull out further on in the process.

Cllr Southward said he believed the cabinet had not had long enough to consider a report compiled by councillors assessing the merits of building the facility, and was concerned after former energy minister Charles Hendry was sacked two weeks ago.

“I think they will postpone it to January,” he said. “I blame the government because the white paper was deliberately vague about the right to withdraw and people distrust it.”

Six years ago the Labour government invited councils around the country to come forward to house the controversial material in what it termed an exercise in “voluntarism”. Radioactive waste would be buried in metal containers at depths of up to a kilometre deep in the rock.

In return, central government would negotiate with communities to provide various benefits, including upgraded road and rail links.

But the only other candidate to come forward, Shepway council in Kent, voted this week to reject the proposals to house the project in Romney Marsh.

Councillors decided by 21 to 13 to drop plans to put Shepway forward for the waste facility, despite supporters arguing that this would have safeguarded jobs in the area after the imminent closure of Dungeness nuclear power station.

Local campaigners and environmentalists vociferously opposed the plans, which would have seen trainloads of nuclear waste arriving twice a week at the site.

Other councils to have rejected the opportunity include Cornwall county council, which voted narrowly against submitting an expression of interest three years ago.

The government would seal the chosen site after 120 years but it would not be considered safe for another 100,000 years.

Sir David King, former chief scientific adviser to the government, has warned that the uncertainty around nuclear waste could “really set back” the process of building new nuclear plants.

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

At present most of Britain’s nuclear waste is in temporary storage in Sellafield, awaiting a permanent home elsewhere.

If the local authorities in Cumbria say Yes – the county council and either Copeland district or Allerdale district – this would pave the way for geological surveys of the area. Yet it could still take another 15 years before a final decision is made on storage, with the repository not opening for at least two decades.

A spokesman for the Department of Energy and Climate Change, the energy department, said it was still too early to know how Cumbria would vote. “It is a matter for them and has not been made yet,” he said. “We have always been taking a voluntary approach to this. The door is open to any host community that wants to express an interest.”

In the run-up to the general election, David Cameron accused the Labour government of being “irresponsible” for failing to deal with the issue of nuclear waste: “They have to be dealt with in order to make any new investment [in nuclear power] possible,” he said, *Jim Pickard reports*.

Two years later, as Mr Cameron’s administration tries to draw in private investment for a new wave of nuclear reactors, the issue is as far from resolved as ever.

Britain is not alone in its attempts to find a site for a gigantic underground repository, a construction project on the same scale as the Channel tunnel.

Governments worldwide have failed to find a permanent solution for the tens of thousands of tonnes of high-level radioactive waste currently stored in temporary facilities.

The disaster at Fukushima in Japan in 2011 highlighted the potential dangers; spent fuel rods were stuffed into cooling tanks at the site, each packed with lethal levels of radioactive isotopes.

Campaigners such as Greenpeace argue that it is foolish for governments to proceed with new nuclear plants when they have not yet resolved this legacy problem from half a century of nuclear power.

One of the few countries going ahead with a permanent repository is Sweden, where two communities competed for the project and the hundreds of jobs it provided.

By contrast, the US has a deep level repository in New Mexico, but it only accepts waste from weapons research and production. A permanent repository for civil waste was proposed for Nevada but the controversial project was scrapped by President Barack Obama.

Opponents of underground repositories say spent fuel can be safely kept for decades while more research is done on alternatives. But the Fukushima crisis has placed a question mark over that argument.

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