Science & Environment

Nuclear waste consultation closes

Nuclear waste storage pool
Image caption Failure to agree on a repository will lead to waste being stored for long periods above ground

Friday marks the end of a consultation that could determine the fate of the UK's high-level radioactive waste.

West Cumbria residents have been asked for their views on whether local councils should enter formal talks with government on hosting a repository.

More than 750 responses have been sent and will be analysed in coming months.

West Cumbria is the only place to have expressed interest. If it decides against, there is no other option on the table for disposal of this waste.

If talks go ahead, the repository deep in the Cumbrian rock could begin receiving waste from the UK's fleet of nuclear reactors - some of which have already closed - from around 2040.

The consultation is being managed by the West Cumbria Managing Radioactive Waste Safely (MRWS) Partnership, formed by the three councils interested - Copeland and Allerdale Borough Councils, and Cumbria County Council.

The partnership has also run a number of discussion events in community centres and a web-based seminar.

Schoolchildren have been able to enter a competition to write an article about the issue.

Tim Knowles, chair of the partnership and a member of Cumbria County Council, said public opinion was crucial in determining whether formal talks go ahead.

"Normally we live in a system where there's an elective representative democracy, where people elect representatives to make decisions for them," he told BBC News.

Image caption The repository plan would see the waste contained in canisters and buried beneath Cumbria

"But in this case, the government has made it clear there must be broad support from the public, and that has to be demonstrable through this consultation.

"In my view it would be impossible for the local authorities to move ahead if there was very clear opposition from the general public."

There has already been opposition from local anti-nuclear groups, some of whom decided not to take up invitations to join the partnership.

Pete Roche, an independent consultant on nuclear issues who advises the Nuclear Free Local Authorities (NFLA) organisation, said the safety case for the repository had not been made.

"NFLA are extremely concerned about a number of outstanding issues that are still to be looked at before we could even begin to produce a decent safety case for deep geological disposal," he said.

"It seems to us that the geology in West Cumbria is particularly bad - and in this process, voluntarism comes before geology, and local communities could be left with the effects of that."

He was aware, he said, of 900 issues that needed to be investigated, including the possibility that gases containing radioactive elements could force their way to the surface.

Balance of risks

The government decided to adopt a 'voluntarist' approach to the nuclear waste issue in 2006.

Previous attempts to find a deep disposal site, it concluded, had foundered principally because communities felt the facility was being foisted upon them.

Finland and Sweden pioneered the voluntarist approach and in both cases it has led to communities actively bidding to be the host.

Although about 16 local authorities around the UK made initial enquiries, the three Cumbrian councils were the only ones to take matters any further.

The risk assessment for local people is that about 70% of the nation's high-level waste is already in the region - at Sellafield.

'Open and transparent'

West Cumbria MRWS Partnership will publish all responses to the consultation in a few months' time, alongside a report detailing what it sees as the implications.

Then, each of the three councils will decide whether it wants to enter talks.

If they do, they will be able to negotiate benefits for local communities, and will have the option of withdrawing at any stage until a final contract is signed.

"My main concern is that the rigour with which we do everything must be capable of withstanding scrutiny, and the test is whether it is capable of withstanding a judicial review," said Mr Knowles.

"It has to be open and transparent."

The eventual decision has national implications because of the lack of an alternative site.

When asked whether there is a Plan B, ministers have repeatedly said that Plan B is to make Plan A work.

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