Government now has ultimate say on radioactive waste repository

New legislation, which was passed before Parliament dissolved last month, has given central government the ultimate responsibility for siting radioactive waste repositories in England.

Government now has ultimate say on radioactive waste repository

On 25 March, members of parliament voted 277 to 33 in favour of passing the ‘The Infrastructure Planning (Radioactive Waste Geological Disposal Facilities) Order 2015’, which brings new geological disposal facilities (GDFs) – the government’s preferred method of storing radioactive waste – under the classification of ‘nationally significant infrastructure projects’ (NSIPs). This new categorisation essentially means that the site of a GDF can now be chosen by the Secretary of State for Energy, however a 'test' of public support will also need to be undertaken.

If this test is positive, the local council covering the potential site can make its objections public, but the opposition alone could not stop the process continuing.

It is hoped that by classifying GDFs as NSIPs, government can prevent local government authorities from stopping the siting process where there are willing communities. Indeed, government’s white paper on Implementing Geological Disposal stated: ‘[N]o one tier of local government should be able to prevent the participation of other members of that community’.

GDF siting background

Central government has stated that England needs to find a site to store the UK’s most radioactive waste ‘deep inside an underground facility’ to ‘ensure that no harmful quantities of radioactivity ever reach the surface environment’. The facilities would manage both existing radioactive waste, and waste from new nuclear power stations. 

However, the process of siting such a site in England stalled in 2013 after the last remaining British region willing to voluntarily host the controversial site, west Cumbria, voted against continuing the search for potentially hosting a £12 billion GDF in the area. The county council decided to cease the search in response to doubts over the suitability of the geology at Cumbria as well as fears over damaging the Lake District’s image.

By voting against the proposal, the council excluded Copeland and Allderdale Boroughs from further consideration in the siting process, despite these two areas saying they were keen to continue the search.

As such, it is hoped that the new NSIP classification could make way for the two borough councils to host GDFs.

‘Decisions mustn’t be taken away from local people’

The legislation has caused some concern, with several local government councilors and anti-nuclear campaigners fearing that GDFs could soon be ‘forced’ upon communities.

Zac Goldsmith, former MP for Richmond Park and North Kingston, voted against the change in classification last month, stating it effectively "strips local authorities of the ability to stop waste being dumped in their communities".

Meanwhile, Friends of the Earth’s Planning Advisor, Naomi Luhde-Thompson, commented: “Communities will be rightly concerned about any attempts to foist a radioactive waste dump on them. We urgently need a long-term management plan for the radioactive waste we’ve already created, but decisions mustn’t be taken away from local people who have to live with the impacts.”

However, despite local government not being able to stop the process, public support will still be required for NSIP GDFs to be built.

Government has stated: 'Communities will have a right of withdrawal from discussions with the developer at any stage in the siting process leading up to the test of public support. If the community withdraws from discussions with the developer prior to the test of public support, the siting process in that community will stop. If the community’s response to the test of public support is positive, the development can proceed, with the developer applying for planning consent for a GDF, and other permissions to proceed from the environmental and nuclear safety and security regulators. If the community’s response is negative, development of a GDF cannot proceed, and the siting process in respect of the site under consideration would cease.’

Find out more about the ‘The Infrastructure Planning (Radioactive Waste Geological Disposal Facilities) Order 2015’ or read the DECC white paper Implementing Geological disposal.

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