burying bad news – the debate over nuclear waste

The battle over nuclear waste, which ended on Wednesday, shows why, sometimes at least, politics still matters. The story behind it was straightforward: the government, which plans to build more nuclear power-stations, wanted a community willing to host an underground, concrete bunker for the storage of waste. Copeland, in part because of its experience of hosting Sellafield, was the only place in Britain, which volunteered to consider a repository.

But, of course, a willing community was not enough – the site had also to be safe. Some of the waste will be radioactive for over 150,000 years –  an unimaginable time-frame. Eight thousand years ago, there were no humans in Cumbria. 40,000 years ago, Neanderthals were still alive. 150,000 years ago, the first anatomically modern human appeared. Over the next 150 millennia, while the waste remains dangerous, our entire civilisation and language-group, will have vanished. And much sooner than that, all engineers agree, the concrete bunker could crumble, leaving the waste to be protected only by the surrounding rock. So, the waste must be placed in a rock formation that itself minimises the movement of radioactive waste, through water-flow out of the repository. The best materials for this, the French have concluded, are clays, such as the Oxfordshire clay, because it naturally seals cracks in the bunker, and keeps out water (think of lining a pond with clay). But, there isn’t clay in Cumbria.

On Wednesday Cumbria county council was expected to approve the start of a multi-million pound investigation. This would have researched and drilled for a decade, in order to determine the composition of the harder crystalline rocks of the Western lake district – in particular the Ennerdale granite. Although clay (or saline layers) are more ideal, granite of the right sort has been considered adequate elsewhere: it has been used in Scandinavia, for nuclear repositories, where there is no clay. This geological research was supposed to be the fourth stage, in a decades-long process, which involves tens of millions of pounds, and hundreds of civil servants – all of whom have been working on the assumption that the repository would be in Cumbria. The pressure on the council was immense. Many in Copeland argued that the multi-billion pound repository would support the West Cumbrian economy for years to come; and that the repository, was a pre-condition for building the new nuclear power-station at Sellafield, which was vital for jobs. They suggested that nothing would be lost by looking: if the rock proved unsuitable, Cumbria could always pull-out later.

But there was a tidal-wave of public opposition – much of it from Penrith and the Border. This included anti-nuclear campaigners; people who hated the idea of placing the repository in a national park; and people who felt it was irresponsible to spend millions of pounds, and decades of time, investigating geology, when Cumbria was never likely to accept the site. The biggest public concern was safety. Many people in Cumbria felt that the Cumbrian rock was unsuitable, and that if the investigation went any further, it would be increasingly difficult to stop the repository being built. They sensed that, after millions of pounds had been spent, after expectations had been raised, and reputations invested, it would become very difficult to admit failure. They feared that the Cumbrian cabinet would be convinced to cooperate by the nuclear industry. And they didn’t trust the government to be objective, when the government was desperate for a repository, and had no other volunteers.

On Wednesday, the Cumbrian cabinet voted against proceeding to the next stage of the geological investigation, 7 votes against 3. And the Secretary of State has confirmed that this now means no repository here. Those people who actually wanted the repository to be built in Cumbria felt that a gradual scientific process had been derailed by instinct and politics. Those who opposed it, felt it was a triumph of grass-roots activism, and of a democratic and responsive council. Both supporters and critics have a point. But the fundamental problem was the government’s failure to win the public’s trust. And having seen the irrational, unchallenged momentum in Iraq and Afghanistan, the public has reason to doubt the objectivity of government, when it is short of options.

If the government now wants to place the waste somewhere safe, it needs a new approach. Here is my proposal. We should begin by copying the Scandinavians, who established a panel of ‘critical friends’ to provide impartial advice on geology. And we should go further. We should define exactly what we mean by safe geology. We should set numerical targets on speed, volume, and predictability of water-flow; and criteria including direction, return-time, and the chemical properties of the soil. And we should publish the targets and criteria, and hold geologists to them. The most prominent academic critics of repositories should be included on the panel. And notwithstanding the excessive use of judges on every conceivable commission, I think the public would be reassured to see a High Court Judge on board. Such a body would help to restore public trust, and encourage scientific rigour. Both are necessary, if we are to find another site, somewhere else that is both geologically safe, and acceptable to a community. And I suspect that if we can find ways to win back public trust in the objectivity of government, it might be good for more than repositories.

Print Friendly and PDF