Cumbria rejects nuclear waste disposal facility

Cumbria nuclear waste

Councillors from Cumbria County Council have today (30 January) voted against continuing the search for potentially hosting a £12 billion underground disposal facility for radioactive waste in the area.

By a vote of seven to three, the council decided against continuing the search for a potential site for a deep geological repository for ‘higher activity’ radioactive waste in West Cumbria. The council also voted to exclude the two districts of Copeland and Allerdale from further consideration in the government’s Managing Radioactive Waste Safely process. This overrules Copeland Borough Council's vote of six to one in favour of looking for a suitable site.

According to the council, doubts over the suitability of the geology at Cumbria as well as fears over damaging the Lake District’s image were reasons for voting against continuing with the search.

"Most courageous and pivotal decision"

Cumbria Council Leader Eddie Martin said it was the "most courageous and pivotal decision" the council could make.

He said: “Cabinet believes there is sufficient doubt around the suitability of West Cumbria’s geology to put an end now to the uncertainty and worry this is causing for our communities. Cumbria is not the best place geologically in the UK – the government’s efforts need to be focused on disposing of the waste underground in the safest place, not the easiest.”

Adding that members had been concerned about the ‘legal right of withdrawal’ from the process, Martin added that they “could not take the risk of saying yes today without this being absolutely nailed down”.

He added: “Cumbria has a unique and world-renowned landscape which needs to be cherished and protected. While Sellafield and the Lake District have co-existed side by side successfully for decades, we fear that if the area becomes known in the national conscience as the place where nuclear waste is stored underground, the Lake District’s reputation may not be so resilient."

‘Significant risks to people and the environment’

Cumbria is not unaccustomed to working with nuclear waste: currently 45 per cent of all employed residents from Copeland Borough and Allerdale Borough work at the Sellafield site, where 70 per cent of the UK’s total nuclear waste either arises or is reprocessed.

Indeed, according to an Ipsos MORI poll from May 2012, the majority of local residents (50 per cent) were behind finding a site in either Copeland or Allerdale to build the underground disposal facility.

However, Sellafield is scheduled to be decommissioned over the next decade, fuelling the urgency for finding suitable ways of dealing with nuclear waste, especially as a report released by the National Audit Office in November 2012 condemned the existing storage of nuclear waste at the Sellafield site as ‘outdated’.

The report went on to outline that some radioactive waste facilities had ‘deteriorated so much that their contents pose significant risks to people and the environment’, and that long-term solutions for hazardous waste disposal had been ‘neglected’ in Sellafield Limited’s planning.

Councillor Stewart Young, Deputy Leader of Cumbria County Council, said: "The case for investment in Sellafield is now more pressing than ever. We had always raised concerns over the lack of any 'plan B' from government and the fact that West Cumbria was the only area to express an interest in the process left the government with few options if we decided not to proceed.

“It is now time for the government to secure the long-term future of the nuclear industry and put in place robust storage arrangements at Sellafield while it decides how to continue the search for a repository elsewhere in the UK."

Decision “will not undermine prospects”

The decision comes as a blow to government, as West Cumbria was the only remaining British region willing to voluntarily host the controversial site.

Despite saying the decision was 'disappointing', Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change Edward Davey, said he 'respected' the decision.

"While their decision to withdraw is disappointing, Cumbria will continue to play a central role in the energy and nuclear power sectors... the decisions made in Cumbria today will not undermine prospects for new nuclear power stations.

“It is however absolutely vital that we get to grips with our national nuclear legacy. The issue has been kicked into the long-grass for far too long.

“We remain firmly committed to geological disposal as the right policy for the long-term, safe and secure management of radioactive waste. We also remain committed to the principles of voluntarism and a community-led approach.”

Drawing on the fact that Copeland voted in favour of continuing the search, Davey said that should any other community volunteer to host the facility, there would be "a substantial community benefits package, worth hundreds of millions of pounds".

“We will now embark on a renewed drive to ensure that the case for hosting a GDF is drawn to the attention of other communities”, he added.

Speaking to Resource in issue 69, Alun Ellis, Engineering Director for Geological Disposal Facility at the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority said that should Cumbria pull out of holding the disposal site for nuclear waste, the NDA would ‘carry on managing it in safe, secure interim storage’.

Read more about nuclear waste disposal.