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Decision on nuclear waste moves a step closer

Tom Feilden | 09:30 UK time, Wednesday, 7 July 2010

Sellafield Nuclear plantThe UK's nuclear legacy - the amount of radio active waste produced since the 1940's - amounts to nearly 500,000 cubic metres of high, low and medium grade radioactive material.

We've known for some time that the preferred option for dealing with this highly toxic stockpile (enough to fill the Albert Hall five times over) is deep geological storage in some sort of underground repository.

But what sort of repository? And, more importantly, where will it go?

We've moved closer to an answer this morning with the publication of a report from the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority.

Geological Disposal: Steps Towards Implementation sets out a comprehensive framework for the design and construction of a £4bn underground nuclear waste facility by 2040.

The scheme involves sealing nuclear waste in specially designed containers up to 1,000 metres below ground, and maintaining it there for up to a million years - the length of time it is likely to remain dangerously radioactive.

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But first a suitable site has to be found, and here the key word is: "volunteerism".

The NDA has accepted that a decision of such lasting significance can only be taken with the consent of the local community. "All of our experience shows us that unless you can make volunteerism work you can't succeed," says the project Director Alun Ellis. "We have to be sensitive to their needs, listen to their concerns, and not try to railroad them".

So far only two local communities - Copeland and Allerdale Borough Councils in west Cumbria - have expressed an interest. Both areas will now be assessed for their geological suitability, before the crunch issue is addressed: what's in it for them?

Here the report makes interesting reading: "Any community that is ultimately chosen to host a geological disposal facility in the national interest will expect UK Government and the NDA to ensure that the project contributes to their further development and wellbeing".

In other words, a package of ongoing incentives - no one at the Authority is using the word bribes - will have to be hammered out between the volunteer community and the Government before the ground is cut.

If such a deal can be struck the NDA believes the design and construction phase could start as soon as 2025, with the finished UK Nuclear Waste Repository taking delivery of the first consignment of radioactive waste by 2040.

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