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Is Cumbria digging itself into a hole over nuclear waste?

Chris Jackson | 07:30 UK time, Monday, 8 October 2012

Chris Jackson standing on top of nuclear waste storage facility at Sellafield, Cumbria

Chris Jackson standing on top of nuclear waste storage facility at Sellafield

It is possibly the most important decision Cumbrians will ever have to make; should the county volunteer to become the home of Britain's nuclear waste?

At the moment 70% of the UK's high level waste is stored above ground at Sellafield. It's under cover in a special part of the site, but this is not the long term solution as some of today's waste will remain radioactive for up to 100,000 years.

When you look at the timeline of our planet you get a feel of just how long that is; a mere 30,000 years ago Neanderthal man became extinct.

In a special documentary on BBC1 at 19:30 GMT, Monday 08 October 2012 I will be looking at how Cumbria is considering putting itself forward as the place to build the UK's underground nuclear waste repository.

The government has been asking for communities to volunteer to have the store under their feet. So far Cumbria has been the only area to come up with a credible bid, but even so it has concerns.

Allerdale, Copeland and the County Council were all due to make a decision this week on whether to press ahead, but at the last minute they and the government agreed to postpone the decision while they thrash out the detail.

Questions that need answering include:
  • Can the councils get a legally binding clause so they could pull out at any stage in the future?
  • Just what benefits can the county expect in return for saying yes?
To some observers it seems odd that the UK is looking for volunteer communities first and only then checking out whether the geology is suitable.

For the programme I visited Finland
Sellafield nuclear power station site

70% of the UK's high level waste is at Sellafield

where they shortlisted suitable sites first and then asked those communities if they'd like to volunteer.

Several towns said yes, and at Eurajoki close to an exisiting nuclear power station, they have already dug down to 420 metres and are about to apply for a licence to store the waste.

Hundreds of mini tunnels will be built and along each several copper cylinders of radioactive waste will be lowered into individual holes bored into the rock and will be surrounded by bentonite clay.

It's a triple layer of protection that is designed to keep it safe until it is no longer radioactive. Engineers are having to plan for all eventualities, including another ice age.

Interestingly the Finnish store is close to Rauma - a world heritage site, so it appears the Nordic approach is that you can have the nuclear and tourist industries cheek by jowel.

That is something those in Cumbria's tourist industry are having to contemplate - could the Lake District be compromised if the county gets a reputation as Britain's nuclear dumping ground?

The three councils in Cumbria will now wait until January to make up their mind whether to give the project the green light.

Chris Jackson in nuclear safety suit

Romar Innovate supplies nuclear safety equipment

The benefits of saying yes could be 1,000 construction jobs and government money towards infrastructure such as roads, hospitals and schools. Local companies already supplying Sellafield see the project as vital to their long term prospects. With a £20 billion price tag the inward investment is certainly tempting.

Safety will be at the forefront of the concerns and the councils also want extra cash to promote Cumbria to offset any adverse publicity a nuclear waste store might bring to one of our most beautiful counties.

Faced with making a choice that will have an impact lasting thousands of generations there's no doubt that this is one the county will want to get right.

Here's a preview of tonight's film:

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Read more about the background the decision on the BBC News website.


  • Comment number 1.

    The very idea of storing nuclear waste is kind off a scary one, but done correctly in theory such waste should be safe to store for decades, if not a couple of hundred years, until we figure out what to do with it, after all it may be possible to destroy it by using it to power fusion generators that would convert it into pure energy and remove the radiation risk, but sea levels are due to rise and such storage must not take place in areas that could be submerged even for short periods i.e. Sellafield.

  • Comment number 2.

    What's safe in the case of nuclear waste? 1000 years? 10.000 years? 100.000 years? How we want to guarantee that people know the danger after so many years? The science has no answers to this questions.
    Here in Germany we thought we disposed our light nuclear waste in the depository "Asse" for many, many years and ice ages [Unsuitable/Broken URL removed by Moderator]. The Asse is a salt stock. In the past experts said, it will be safe. But analysis now show that the waste isn't safe. So the barrels with nuclear waste have to recover and the exploration for a new disposal zone is starting again. The German tax payer has to pay the bill. It will cost billions. Please don't say nuclear power is safe. The happenings in Fukushima (Japan) showed, that such a perilous technology can't be under control. We are only gaming with the future of our planet.


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