History of nuclear waste disposal proposals in Britain

Prior to 1976 very little thought had been given to the question of how we were going to deal with the nuclear waste produced by military and nuclear electricity programmes. Some lower level waste was disposed of at sea, but most waste was simply accumulating at various nuclear sites around the country. Then a report from the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution (known as the Flowers Report) raised the alarm. It stated that:

“… it would be morally wrong to commit future generations to the consequences of fission power on a massive scale unless it has been demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt that at least one method exists for the safe isolation of these wastes for the indefinite future.” [para 181, page 81]

The Commission recommended the formation of a Nuclear Waste Disposal Corporation to begin the search for a solution. That solution is still just as elusive today as it was twenty-eight years ago.

Search for a dump

In late 1976, reports began to appear in the press that a team of UK Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA) scientists from Harwell in Oxfordshire had selected the Highlands and Islands and the Scottish Uplands as offering the most suitable granite formations for a high-level nuclear waste (HLW) dump.

In fact, the government’s geological research institute (The Institute of Geological Sciences – IGS) had identified 127 areas, ranging in size from 5 to 6,000 square kilometers.1 The list was whittled down to 24 sites by using desk studies. After reconnaissance field visits and consideration of land ownership, equipment access and possible ecological damage, 8 sites were short-listed for detailed investigation, involving test drilling to check the suitability of the rock. The problem for the UK Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA) was that before such drilling could take place, planning permission was required. Planning applications were only ever submitted for three of the granite sites – two in Scotland and one just south of the Border.

The first planning application was made in January 1978 to Kyle and Carrick District Council (South-west Scotland) by the UKAEA to test drill on Mullwharchar Hill near Loch Doon on the border between Strathclyde and Dumfries and Galloway. On 24th October 1978, the Council rejected the application, so in April 1979, the Authority lodged an appeal with the Secretary of State for Scotland.

On 19th February 1980, a public inquiry began in Ayr Town Hall, finishing on 19th March. Three opposition groups were formed: a branch of the Edinburgh-based group, the Scottish Campaign to Resist the Atomic Menace (SCRAM), opened in Castle Douglas; the Scottish Conservation Society formed in Kirkcudbright and the Campaign Opposing Nuclear Dumping (COND) formed in Ayr. The inquiry fuelled massive public opposition, and other groups formed across Scotland, some near sites which had not even made it to the short list of 8.

SCRAM also opened a branch in Aberdeen to fight proposals in North-east Scotland, and helped set up opposition groups all over Scotland by dispatching speakers to standing-room-only public meetings. One group, the Oystercatchers in Argyll set up a base in a caravan in Glen Etive, along with Siol Nan Gaidheal (a part of the SNP) in June 1980 with the aim of keeping the Institute of Geological Sciences out of the Glen.

A second planning application for test-drilling at Altnabreac, in Strath Halladale, was submitted to Caithness District Council in 1978. Here the Council was more amenable to the nuclear industry as a large part of the county’s population relied on the Dounreay nuclear establishment for employment. Planning permission was granted and 27 boreholes were drilled between November 1978 and May 1979.

Planning applications were also made to Alnwick and Berwick District Councils in the summer of 1978 for test drilling in two granite areas in the Northumbria National Park. These applications were also rejected by the National Parks Committee on 26th June 1978. So a second public inquiry, began on 28th October 1980 in Newcastle. Public opposition to the proposals was run by the Cheviots Defence Action Group.

As well as the granite sites, mainly in Scotland, various clay and salt rock sites were identified in England and Wales, and divulged to parliament in late1979 and early 1980. Four planning applications for test drilling were made, in two main areas.

An application for test drilling at the Royal Ordnance Factory at Puriton, Somerset was submitted by Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) in October 1980 – responsibility for waste research having transferred to NERC from UKAEA in 1980. Planning permission was refused. A date for an inquiry was set for January/February 1982.

Applications for test drilling at Wymeswold Airfield in Leicestershire – a former RAF base; the Brent Knoll service area on the M5 south of Bristol and the Radcliffe-on-Soar power station in Nottinghamshire, were all submitted by NERC in October 1981. Planning permission was refused at all three.

Two other areas, which never got to the planning application stage, also generated huge opposition. The first was the Worcester Basin – a huge area stretching over Herefordshire Worcestershire and Gloucestershire. The area of interest was thought to be the Vale of Evesham clay. Friends of the Earth Evesham, who were leading the opposition in this area, organised a “spot the dump” competition. The prize for the winner was a poem specially written by Monty Python’s Terry Jones.

The second area where opposition was strong was Gwynedd and Powys in North Wales. Anti-dumping group, Madryn (Welsh for Cunning Fox) successfully stopped an IGS survey team from operating in the designated area in June 1980. Forestry Commission offices in Aberystwyth were also occupied to protest against permission being given to IGS to carry out surveys.

The first, and only inquiry into the clay and salt sites was held in Loughborough starting on November 24th 1981. It was rushed through lasting just one and a half weeks. The inquiry dealt with the Wymeswold site in Leicestershire and the Radcliffe-on-Soar site in Nottinghamshire – both sites were in a clay deposit on the Nottinghamshire and Leicestershire border. Friends of the Earth (FoE) Evesham and the Welsh group, PANDORA gave valuable help to FoE Loughborough to defeat the proposals.

All of these inquiries fuelled massive public opposition to the Government nuclear waste disposal programme, but test drilling was only ever carried out at one site – Altnabreac in Caithness. Finally, the government backed down and abandoned the programme of test drilling in December 1981, claiming that it had decided that vitrified (solidified into glass blocks) HLW should be “stored for at least 50 years until the rate of heat-generation has been substantially reduced”.

Low and Intermediate Level Waste

After the collapse of the UKAEA’s search for a HLW dump at the end of 1981, the Government decided instead to begin a search for dumpsites for low and intermediate-level waste (LLW and ILW), in the expectation that burying these wastes would be less controversial.

In 1982, the Government set up Nirex, the Nuclear Industry Radioactive Waste Executive, but only gave it responsibility to implement a strategy for the disposal of LLW and ILW.

Meanwhile in 1983 a resolution calling for a two-year moratorium on dumping nuclear waste at sea was agreed at the International treaty organisation – the London Dumping Convention. The Government had been planning to ignore this resolution, and continue with the annual dumping of low and intermediate level waste at sea, which had been going on since 1949. However, the National Union of Seafarers refused to carry out the dumping. Eventually, the London Dumping Convention made its moratorium a permanent ban, so an important route for the disposal of nuclear waste was denied to the industry.

Also in 1983 Nirex, announced a new policy: a deep anhydrite mine under Billingham in Cleveland was proposed as a site for ILW, and Elstow in Bedfordshire was proposed as a site for the shallow burial of LLW.

Opposition groups sprang up in both areas. The Billingham site was abandoned in January 1985, ostensibly because ICI, the mine’s owners, had refused access to the official survey team because of huge pressure from the local community.

Then in February 1986, three further sites joined Elstow on the short-list for a LLW shallow burial site. Nirex announced it would like to investigate the four sites – Elstow in Bedfordshire, Bradwell in Essex, Fulbeck in Lincolnshire and South Killingholme on Humberside – to see if they were suitable for the construction of a facility for the disposal by shallow burial of LLW.

To avoid embarrassing public inquiries, Special Development Orders were granted in Parliament to permit survey engineers to gain access to the site. Three new opposition groups joined campaigners in Bedfordshire. When test drilling was due to start at three of the sites in August 1986, hundreds of people formed human barricades and successfully prevented contractors from gaining access for three weeks. History repeated itself at the fourth site in September. Contractors only gained access to the sites by use of court injunctions and a heavy police presence.

On 1st May 1987, prior to a General Election, the Government abandoned the four proposed LLW sites. It was decided instead to develop deep disposal options for ILW and “piggy-back” LLW in the same facility.

The Way Forward

The next attempt to find a ‘final resting place’ for nuclear waste began in November 1987 with the publication of a ‘consultation’ document, by Nirex, called “The Way Forward”. This document initiated a six-month consultation process during which the public was invited to choose the ‘best option’ for dealing with LLW and ILW. But the options were limited to burying the waste, either beneath the seabed via some kind of offshore platform; beneath the seabed accessed from land; or beneath land. Long-term storage of existing nuclear waste above ground, at the site of production, proposed by environmentalists and many local authorities was not included in the consultation document. From this initial work, Nirex short-listed twelve sites around the country for a deep dump.

In the spring of 1989, Nirex announced that it would concentrate its search for a deep repository at two sites, both existing nuclear facilties – Dounreay in Caithness and Sellafield in Cumbria. The other ten sites on their short-list were kept secret until 2005.2 However, this time Caithness District Council was not as compliant as it had been when it approved the planning application for test drilling at Altnabreac in 1978. A referendum was organised by the Council in November 1989. 74% of voters opposed Nirex’s plans.

Sellafield Selected

After a programme of test drilling at both sites, Nirex announced in July1991 that its preferred site for a dump was at Sellafield. Originally the intention was to submit a planning application in the autumn of 1992, but after a series of delays, Nirex announced in 1993 that it would only submit an application to develop an underground “laboratory”, rather than a full-scale dump. However it took until autumn 1994 for Nirex to submit a planning application for its so-called Rock-Characterisation Facility. 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.

Gummer justified his refusal saying that he remains:

“… concerned about the scientific uncertainties and technical deficiencies in the proposals presented by Nirex [and] about the process of site selection and the broader issue of the scope and adequacy of the environmental statement.”

In a letter to Nirex he said:

“… your company does not understand the regional hydrogeological system well enough.”

So, after over 15 years of work and an expenditure of around half a billion of taxpayer’s money, the elusive search for a solution to the nuclear waste problem was back to square one.

The House of Lords

When Labour won the May 1997 General Election, nuclear waste was probably the most intractable problem John Prescott found in his in-tray on arrival at the Environment Department. He was confronted with the need for a completely new policy on nuclear waste management, following the disarray left by Gummer’s rejection of Nirex’s Rock Characterisation Facility at Sellafield. This “inevitably meant that there was a need for a period of reflection”.3

In the early stages of the Blair Government there were rumours of disagreements between Ministers who wanted to re-start the search for a disposal site and leave a legacy of a “problem solved” and those who felt that deep disposal was not the answer. Consequently decisions were delayed until after the House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology, which had already started an investigation, had reported.

The House of Lords report was published in March 1999.4 It recommended that the Government produce a Green Paper on nuclear waste management, and after a period of consultation a White Paper. The emphasis given by the Lords to public consultation was generally welcomed. But the report still assumed there would be a deep repository, and there was no enthusiasm, either in Whitehall or in the nuclear industry, to begin a whole new site selection process, and a battle with local residents opposed to whatever plans they could come up with.

Environment Minister, Michael Meacher told the House of Commons on 20th July 2000, that he would launch a consultation process – basically a consultation into how to consult. This would

“… be the first step of an open and transparent approach that must characterise the radioactive waste management policy debate in the future. The main aim of the consultation paper will be to explore how to involve the public, and groups that represent the public, in that debate.”

In a widely welcomed move the Government rejected the suggestion by the House of Lords that a new disposal company was required in order to come up with new disposal proposals. Instead, the Government wanted to go back to the drawing board and refused to “endorse any particular management option until after they have carefully considered the views of respondents”.

“Managing Radioactive Waste Safely” – the Government’s consultation document on how to develop its policy – was published in September 2001. After a six month consultation, which used some interesting new techniques such as focus groups and various dialogues with ‘stakeholders’, the Government announced in July 2002 that it was going to establish a new independent committee to review options for managing radioactive waste and to make recommendations. This new Committeee on Radioactive Waste Management (CoRWM) must ensure that this review of options is carried out in an open, transparent and inclusive manner, and must engage the public, and provide them with the opportunity to express their views.

“The objective of CoRWM’s programme is to arrive at recommendations which can inspire public confidence and are practicable in securing the long term safety of the UK’s radioactive wastes. It must therefore listen to what people say during the course of its work, and address the concerns that they raise.”5

This will be a long process, and the Committee does not expect to be able to report to the Government until November 2006. The Committee is planning an active programme of public and relevant stakeholder group debate, using innovative and appropriate techniques to ensure public involvement and support.

To Deep Dispose or not to Deep Dispose?

There is a fundamental difference of opinion between environmentalists on the one hand and the nuclear industry and its supporters on the other. This is over whether it is possible to “dispose” of nuclear waste. The philosophy of deep disposal is based on the concept of multiple barriers:- the waste containers themselves; the grout surrounding the containers; the surrounding rocks; and dispersal of any radioactivity penetrating the above barriers away from potable sources.6 Deep disposal would put this dangerous waste out of harms way, remove a potential target for terrorist attack, and avoid leaving a problem of our making for future generations to deal with.

Environmentalists, on the other hand, say that this method cannot be described as ‘disposal’. Any deep dump would have targets set for doses of radioactivity to the public during the thousands or even millions of years the waste remains dangerous. According to the Collins Concise Dictionary (1989) disposal is “the act or means of getting rid of something”. Since the deep disposal concept is based on the eventual dilution and dispersion of radioactivity throughout the environment, it is in fact a misnomer. Putting nuclear waste in a “repository” does not get rid of it at all.

Environmentalist are concerned that the rate at which radioactivity would leak from a deep dump is poorly predictable, and likely to remain so for an indefinite period, despite many decades of expensive research. Instead they favour storage on the surface in dry above-ground stores where it can be monitored and retrieved and repackaged if necessary. This, they say, would give future generations a choice about how our nuclear legacy is managed whereas a below ground repository would just leave a legacy of a nuclear waste dump gradually releasing radioactivity into the environment, cutting off the options for future generations.


Once the government realised that dumping nuclear waste underground was going to be extremely controversial it tried various techniques to get it proposals accepted. Initially its methods became increasingly authoritarian with Special Development Orders replacing public inquiries, and a heavy police response used against ordinary members of the public opposed to its plans. For a democratically elected government the danger of response in this authoritarian manner is that plans are regularly interrupted by General Elections. Over the past twenty-eight years there have been several cases of nuclear waste proposals being abandoned by governments in panic immediately prior to an election. Governments also found that the standard consultation method of releasing a document for public consultation after the fundamental policy framework had already been decided simply increased public suspicion that a decision had already been made and so did not work either.

The Government is now experimenting with more open and transparent consultation techniques, which will include dialogue with ‘stakeholders’ including members of the public, environment groups and the nuclear industry. These experiments, which can also been seen in other areas of policy, could be described as an attempt to ‘deepen’ democracy. The idea that we elect a government once every five years which makes decisions on our behalf, but is only answerable to the public via the ballot box is rapidly falling out of favour. It is still too early to predict whether CoRWM will be successful in carrying out its remit, but the nuclear waste debate is likely to have implications for the development of democracy in the UK for many years to come. What is clear, however, is that a vital piece of the public consultation process is missing – the Government has failed to announce an end to the production of more nuclear waste.

1. See Mather, Gray and Greenwood, 1979, “Burying Britains’s radioactive waste: The geological areas under investigation.” Nature, vol 281, no 5730 pp 332-334, October 4, 1979

2. See Geological Disposal – Historical List of POssible Locations for a Radioactive Waste Repository, NDA, 19th June 2005, https://www.nda.gov.uk/publication/geological-disposal-historic-list-of-possible-locations-for-a-radioactive-waste-repository/

3. The Government’s response to the House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology Report on the Management of Nuclear Waste (25th October 1999) (http://www.environment.detr.gov.uk/radioactivity/govtresponse/lords/index.htm)

4. The House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology report on the Management of Nuclear Waste was published on 10th March 1999.

5. CoRWM’s objectives from www.corwm.org

6. Radioactive Waste – Where Next? Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology. Nov 1997.


Published: 20 November 2012
Last updated: 3 February 2016