UK Government policy is to place higher activity radioactive waste in a geological disposal facility (GDF), where the waste is packaged and emplaced in a series of vaults and tunnels deep underground. The Government’s latest white paper, published in December 2018 details a proposed framework for geological disposal, including how the delivery body, Radioactive Waste Management Ltd (RWM), which is a subsidiary of the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) will “work in partnership with communities” to identify a suitable location to host a geological disposal facility. The 2018 White Paper kicked off the sixth search for a nuclear waste dump site in 42 years. RWM says it will work with local authorities and other community representatives to find a suitable location. The Government stresses that a GDF will only be located in a “willing community”. (See nuClear News No.114 Jan/Feb 2019)
Two Working Groups have now been set up in Cumbria – one in Copeland and one in Allerdale – to begin discussions about the potential for hosting a GDF. There are three key differences compared to the last attempt, between 2008 and 2013, to find a potential site in Cumbria. Firstly, the Lake District National Park should be excluded from the search area (but the Solway Coast Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty is not excluded), but in August 2021 some doubt was cast on this commitment; secondly, Cumbria County Council has lost its power of veto and thirdly, a substantial offshore area has been included – previously an area up to 5km from the shore was included, now the offshore area from 5km to 22km is included. The new process doesn’t require an expression of interest from a local council. Even an individual can volunteer an entire borough – in fact anyone can volunteer anywhere. As part of the process to identify a suitable site for a GDF within a willing community, RWM has undertaken initial discussions with four interested parties in Copeland and one in Allerdale, and carried out initial evaluations for each area to determine if they have any potential to host a GDF.
Eddie Martin, Leader of Cumbria County Council in January 2013 when it called a halt to the search in Cumbria said:
The process appears to be designed to make it very simple to join, by allowing even individuals and landowners to express an interest, but very difficult to leave. The contrast between the openness and flexibility in joining, and the over-prescriptive and complex method of leaving is reminiscent of a timeshare scheme.”
A March 2021 NFLA briefing gives more background and recent history.
The north-east port town of Hartlepool is one of the other sites in the frame as a potential site for a GDF, along with a former gas terminal point at Theddlethorpe, near the Lincolnshire coast. Both of these are only at the stage of initial discussions.
The 2018 White Paper is an update of a July 2014 White Paper called “Implementing Geological Disposal” which opened 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. The 2014 White Paper said the Government would commission a national (excluding Scotland) screening process based on known geological information. The results of this were eventually published in January 2018.
The 2014 White Paper also said the Government intended to develop a process for working with communities with experts in the field of community decision making. It said it would convene a community representation working group to address the challenging and complex issues that have been raised in relation to community representation and engagement at potential Geological Disposal Facility (GDF) sites.
In January 2018 the Government launched two further consultations on how communities should be engaged in a siting process for a GDF and on a draft National Policy Statement (NPS) for a GDF which is intended to provide the framework for the Planning Inspectorate and the Secretary of State to examine and make decisions on development consent applications for geological disposal infrastructure in England. (See NFLA Briefing April 2018). The final version of the National Policy Statement is available here.
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. (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. David Smythe said he had demonstrated that both the rock groups found around Eskdale and Silloth were unsuitable.
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.(See History of Nuclear Waste Disposal Proposals)
After several further attempts to find a dump site, in July 1991 the waste agency at the time, Nirex, announced a plan 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”.
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
In July 2021 Radioactive Waste Management Ltd. (RWM) – a wholly owned subsidiary of the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) published its 2019 Inventory for Geological Disposal (IGD). It estimated that the total radioactivity of the inventory in the year 2200 would amount to 28,000,000 terabecquerels (TBq). New build spent fuel would dominate in terms of radioactivity for at least the first 100,000 years after closure of a deep geological disposal facility (GDF). New Build Spent Fuel represents 19,000,000 TBq of this activity or 67% of the total whilst spent MoX (mixed-oxide uranium-plutonium fuel) is another 13% (3,700,000 TBq).
For more on New Build Waste see here
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.
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“.
24th August 2021