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New consultation on locating radioactive waste

Locating radioactive waste

The Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) has today (12 September) launched a public consultation on ‘revising and improving’ site selection aspects of the Managing Radioactive Waste Safely (MRWS) programme.

The ‘Consultation review of the siting process for a Geological Disposal Facility’ follows a preparatory call for evidence in May and June of this year, when stakeholders were invited to submit their views to inform the consultation. 

It is hoped that by finding a location to site a multi-million pound Geological Disposal Facility (GDF), the UK’s most radioactive waste could be stored ‘deep inside an underground facility’ to ‘ensure that no harmful quantities of radioactivity ever reach the surface environment’. The facility would manage both existing radioactive waste, and waste from new nuclear power stations. 

The government has previously indicated its commitment to geological disposal as a long-term strategy for managing radioactive waste, but the consultation outlines several changes in how the site for a GDF will be identified. The proposed changes, to which interested parties will have three months to respond, include: granting local communities with ‘more information’ on the project at an earlier stage; requiring a ‘positive community-wide demonstration of support’ before finalising a site; and providing communities an on-going right to withdraw from the process.

Voluntarism approach

The need to find a GDF site has increased in urgency recently, 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 underground disposal facility for radioactive waste 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 government’s Managing Radioactive Waste Safely process, despite these two areas saying they were keen to continue the search.

Despite the difficulty of finding a suitable location for disposing of radioactive waste, the voluntarism approach is set to remain. Energy Secretary Ed Davey has stressed that the government “continues to favour a site selection process based on working in partnership with interested local communities”.

Economic benefits to hosting communities

To stimulate interest in hosting disposal infrastructure, the government has sought to focus attention on the economic benefits and job opportunities that will result from the siting of the ‘multi-billion’ pound GDF.

Speaking of the project, Baroness Verma, Minister for Energy, said: “Hosting a site would bring lasting economic benefits with jobs, opportunities for businesses, and a generous benefits package to support the community. We want to make sure those benefits are well understood and supported by all those in the area surrounding any host community.”

According to the DECC, these benefits include the creation of 1,000 jobs during the GDF’s construction phase, with an average of more than 500 staff employed for each of its 100 years in operation. Furthermore, the government has said it will ensure that the importance of the project at a national level is reflected at a local level through a ‘generous community benefits package’. This would create a ‘lasting commitment’ to support the community through future generations. The UK Government would only be able to retrieve these funds if a GDF was not constructed in the community.

Responsibility for the design, development and implementation of a GDF lies with the Radioactive Waste Management Directorate (RWMD), a branch of the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority. In light of the consultation, Bruce McKirdy, Managing Director of the RWMD, said: “For more than 50 years, we have all benefited from the use of clean and secure nuclear energy, but we have not successfully addressed the long term disposal of higher activity radioactive waste. Geological disposal is an internationally recognised technically sound solution for higher activity waste to protect people and our environment.

“As the body responsible for the design, development and delivery of a geological disposal facility, we look forward to working with communities, stakeholders and the government to take responsibility for our past and avoid passing the burden of legacy waste to future generations.”

Lasting until 5 December, the consultation will include a series of events for public and interested parties. It covers England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Scotland has its own policy for managing radioactive waste.

Following the consultation, the MRWS site selection process will resume in 2014. DECC says that the process to select a site would vary according to the specific needs of the community, but could take around 15 years, with construction taking a further 15 years.

Read the ‘Consultation review of the siting process for a Geological Disposal Facility’ or find out more about managing radioactive waste.