The launch of a new White Paper called “Implementing Geological Disposal” opens up a whole new chapter in the UK’s 40-year long search for a solution to the problem of what to do with nuclear waste.

Cumbria County Council rejected the Government’s plans to undertake preliminary work on an underground radioactive waste dump on 30th January 2013. The county and its western district councils Allerdale and Copeland were the only local authorities in the UK still involved in feasibility studies for a £12bn disposal facility. So the rejection left the UK once again, without a plan for dealing with its nuclear waste legacy, let alone waste from proposed new reactors. (See NuClear News No. 47)

In 2008 with the publication of its Managing Radioactive Waste Safely (MRWS) White Paper  the UK Government launched yet another search for an underground site for a nuclear waste dump. Communities across the country were invited to talk to them about potentially hosting a site that would ultimately become a ‘Geological Disposal Facility’. Allerdale Borough Council, Copeland Borough Council and Cumbria County Council were the only authorities to volunteer and agreed to discuss the possibility of a search for a site in West Cumbria. The West Cumbria Managing Radioactive Waste Safely Partnership was set up by the Councils “to ensure that a wide range of community interests were involved in the discussions.”

The Partnership met roughly every six weeks for more than three years to look at the issues that would be involved in West Cumbria taking part in the search for somewhere to build a repository for higher activity radioactive waste. The Partnership’s final report was published on 16th August 2012.1 (see Radioactive Waste Dump Search could Hit the Buffers NuClear News No. 44  for a summary.)

Although nowhere in Cumbria had been ruled out, apart from the areas ruled out by the British Geological Survey (BGS), (See map on page 7 here) two highly sensitive areas, that could have been investigated further, were identified by one geologist. These were Eskdale in the South West Lakes and Silloth in the North Lakes areas.

At various public meetings in Cumbria, Professor Stuart Haszeldine of Edinburgh University, and Emeritus Prof David Smythe of Glasgow University, explained that more than enough information already existed to make a decision to exclude possible sites in Allerdale and Copeland.4 David Smythe said he had demonstrated that both the rock groups found around Eskdale and Silloth were unsuitable.5

40-year search ended in failure

So after more than 60 years of a civil nuclear power programme, the UK is still seeking a long-term solution for dealing with its higher activity radioactive waste.  The search for a site to build an underground dump began almost forty years ago in 1976 when eight potential sites were selected. This fuelled massive public opposition to nuclear waste disposal, which forced the Government to back down and abandon the programme in December 1981.6

After several further attempts to find a dump site, the most recent plan – promoted by the waste agency at the time, Nirex – was to build a “Rock-Characterisation Facility” at Sellafield. A public inquiry, lasting five months, was held at the end of 1995, ending on 1st February1996. On 17th March 1997, just prior to a General Election, the then Secretary of State for the Environment, John Gummer, rejected Nirex’s planning application.

So, when the Blair Government published its first Energy White Paper in February 2003 this quite sensibly said the Government would not be bringing forward proposals to build new nuclear power stations because “there were important issues of nuclear waste to be resolved”.

A new independent committee – the Committee on Radioactive Waste Management (CoRWM) was established by the Government in 2003, to review options for managing radioactive waste and make recommendations. And the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) was created through the Energy Act 2004, to deliver the decommissioning and clean-up of the UK’s civil nuclear legacy.

In July 2006, after three years deliberation, CoRWM recommended that “Within the present state of knowledge, CoRWM considers geological disposal to be the best available approach for the long-term management” of higher level waste. However there were lots of caveats and other important recommendations which the Government ignored. (See Nuclear Waste Briefing, September 2008)

New Scientist predicted that “Some advocates of nuclear power will doubtless argue that CoRWM has now provided …” the solutions to the nuclear waste problem required by the 2003 White Paper. “This is optimism gone mad. Deciding to put waste down a hole, with no idea what form the repository should take or where it should be, is no more of a plan than has existed for the past 30 years”.7

The Government’s second White Paper published in November 2008 did indeed argue that sufficient progress had now been made to justify a change in policy with regard to new nuclear build, (See para 2.137) even though CoRWM had specifically said it did not want its recommendations seized upon as providing a green light for new build and warned that new build waste would extend the time-scales for implementation, possibly for very long but essentially unforeseeable future periods. CoRWM also said decisions on new build should be subject to their own public assessment process, including consideration of waste, because such decisions raise different political and ethical issues when compared with the consideration of wastes which already exist.

The Government was even forced by the High Court to consult a second time before finalising the November 2008 White Paper because the first consultation document did not give a fair summary of CoRWM’s position on nuclear waste from new reactors and “was not merely wholly inadequate, it was also seriously misleading”.8

New Build Waste

The NDA says the high burn-up fuel (65 GW/tU) likely to be used in new reactors will require a cooling period of about 100 years before it could be emplaced in a repository – which could mean spent fuel stored on new reactor sites for up to 160 years (i.e. 100 years after the reactor closes). However by the judicious mixing of long-cooled and short-cooled Spent Fuel it’s possible the duration of storage after the end of power station operation could be reduced to the order of 50 years before disposal (i.e. storage for 110 years).9

The Environment Agency (EA) has set a limit on the risk that may be caused by the burial of radioactive wastes of 10-6 (i.e. one in a million).10 However, the NDA Disposability Assessment Report for waste arising from new EPR reactors states:

“…a risk of 5.3 x 10-7 per year for the lifetime arisings of a fleet of six EPR reactors each generating a lifetime total of 900 canisters is calculated”.11

No limit has been set on the size of a new build programme – at the moment the Government hopes it will be the equivalent of 10 EPRs (16GW), so there is clearly a danger that a second repository will be required.

According to CoRWM, the radioactive wastes of the proposed 10 new reactors would contain almost three times the amount of radioactivity of the wastes and nuclear materials created over the past 60 years of nuclear activity.12 So it is misleading to say that 70% of the waste already exists at Sellafield.

Deep Geological Disposal

There are two sets of arguments against plans for a Deep Geological Repository (DGR). The first is that the safety case for any repository, irrespective of location has not been made. The second is specifically relates to the unsuitability of geology in Cumbria.

100 outstanding issues that need to be resolved before we could even begin to produce a decent safety case have been highlighted by Nuclear Waste Advisory Associates (NWAA). The Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) has listed 900 outstanding issues that need to be investigated, including the possibility that gases containing radioactive elements could force their way to the surface. Thus it is impossible to demonstrate with any scientific credibility that the resultant radiation dose to people from a nuclear waste repository would be at an acceptably low level into the far distant future.13

Those in favour of Deep Geological Disposal generally argue that we have a responsibility to future generations to deal with the issue of nuclear waste we have created now, rather than leaving it for them to clean up. Those opposed argue that it would be better to leave future generations with a choice about what to do with nuclear waste rather than bequeathing a fait accompli which could turn out to be a leaking repository.

West Cumbria Unsuitable

The reasons why West Cumbria is unsuitable include: 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. Hot temperatures from spent fuel and high level waste will destabilise the minimal natural barriers. Radioactive gas can leak to the surface within 60 years, and the copper canisters to isolate radioactive iodine may corrode, and waste heat will crack the rocks and lift the land surface. Site selection has been based on politics, not on security of the public. A project the size of the channel tunnel in the rural Lake District means decades of construction workers; two pyramid-sized mounds of rubble on the surface for 150 years; possibly a new surface “cooling facility” to chill extra hot waste for 150 years until it can go below ground.14

Eddie Martin, the Leader of Cumbria County Council until May 2013 told The Guardian 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“.

Next Steps

In May 2013 the Government issued a “call for evidence on the siting process for a geological disposal facility”. It said it wanted to know what lessons could be learned from the experiences of the MRWS programme in west Cumbria and elsewhere.  The Nuclear Free Local Authorities response to this call is available here.

Then on 12th September 2013 the Government launched a new consultation on a revised process for working with communities in order to agree a site for a Geological Disposal Facility (GDF).  The new consultation closed on 5th December 2013. Controversially the new proposals proposed that district councils would be the lead authority on locating waste dumps, which would have given Copeland and Allerdale Councils a second chance to launch a search for a site without a veto by Cumbria county council. The government was accused of “astonishingly undemocratic” behaviour by Eddie Martin, a Conservative who led the county council when it took the decision against a repository earlier this year.

The New White Paper

Implementing Geological Disposal says the Government will commission a national (excluding Scotland) screening process based on known geological information. This sound good for Cumbria where several geologists have said we already know enough to rule out the possibility of finding a suitable site. But the Government’s view is that in poor geology we could rely more heavily on engineered barriers.15 But there has been no discussion about this. There should be a national debate about whether we are looking for the best geology for the job or whether we are happy to use mediocre geology and rely more heavily on engineered barriers.

1. Final report of the West Cumbria Managing Radioactive Waste Safely Partnership, WCMRWS 16th August 2012
Précis here
2. Cumbria County Council Press Release 2nd October 2012
3. Carlisle News and Star 6th October 2012
4. University of Edinburgh, School of Geo Sciences, 7th September 2012
5. Radiation Free Lakeland 15th August 2012
6. History of Nuclear Waste Disposal Proposals in Britain. No2Nuclear Power Briefing, 2006.
7. Optimism gone mad on nuclear waste, Rob Edwards, 9th May 2006
8. High Court Judgment available here.
9. Geological Disposal: Feasibility Studies exploring options for storage, transport and disposal of spent fuel from potential new nuclear power stations. NDA, November 2010
10. Geological Disposal Facilities on Land for Solid Radioactive Wastes: Guidance on Requirements for Authorisation, Environment Agency, February 2009, page 46 para 6.3.10
11. Generic Design Assessment: Disposability Assessment for wastes and spent fuel arising from operation of the UK EPR. Part 1 Main Report. NDA, 22nd Jan 2010, para 5.4 page 97.
12. Inventory Summary Information, CoRWM, January 2006.
13. Number mentioned verbally at Geological Disposal Implementation Board meetings. The Update on RWMD Approach to Issues Management, NDA/RWMD March 2012 gives the figure as 500. The issue groups are listed in RWMD Approach to Issues Management, NDA, August 2011  . The note also says that 400 internally raised issues have been removed because these have already been identified as information needs within the RWMD R&D programme.
14. Geological Disposal of Radioactive Waste in West Cumbria, Professor Stuart Haszeldine.
15. Consultation: Review of the Siting Process for a Geological Disposal Facility, DECC September 2013


Published: 10 October 2012
Last updated: 28 July 2014