Managing nuclear waste - it

Managing nuclear waste - it's as much about hearts and minds as economics

by Jack Stopforth

When I was appointed Managing Director of the Cumbria Inward Investment Agency Limited in 1998, many local businesses, community leaders, trade unionists and public-sector leaders were still recovering from the Nirex era, which had dominated discussion in the county for much of the prior decade.

Nirex was a quango created to identify a site or sites for deep geological storage of nuclear waste and in October 1992 they announced plans to build a “Rock Characterisation Facility” (RCF) at Sellafield. Cumbria County Council opposed the development with support from Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace, painting RCF as the thin end of a wedge leading to Cumbria’s becoming a national dumping ground for radioactive waste. They argued successfully that Nirex's scientific knowledge of the behaviour of nuclear waste over a long period was insufficient to prove that geological disposal was safe. The battle was long drawn out and in 1997, after a 5-months long local planning inquiry, the Secretary of State for the Environment rejected Nirex's case. As recently as 2013 the whole topic was revisited. The most directly affected boroughs – Copeland and Allerdale voted in support of further research being undertaken into the prospect of deep disposal in Cumbria but once again (and on broadly similar grounds) the County Council rejected the proposals.

But, of course, the waste hasn’t gone away. It has been expertly stored and managed at Sellafield and should the planned new power station at Moorside proceed, it too will create waste, albeit with ever-improving techniques for managing the product. Now the business press in Cumbria and elsewhere has confirmed that a new search for a geological disposal facility is expected to begin next year. Clearly, finding a long-term and safe solution to storing waste, the majority of which is currently stored at Sellafield, remains “mission critical” for the Government. How will they fare this time around?

Much will depend of the quality of their public affairs. Nirex failed not just because of a flawed scientific argument but also because the organisation’s stakeholder engagement policies left a great deal to be desired. To succeed, a new approach to working with local communities is critical. This argument is as much about hearts and minds as it is about science and employment – even allowing for the massive economic boost implicit in the proposals and the prizes that might await the ‘successful’ community: a thousand jobs in the construction phase, 600 employed on site and a further thousand in the supply chain nationally. New roads, new homes, improved railway links and major infrastructure investment are being promised and there is a case for saying “Cumbria already stores some 60% of the UK’s nuclear waste so why not expand that in return for massive local investment to improve the quality of life for generations of Cumbrians?”

The national geological screening of which the Copeland option was a part, has been completed and outputs are being finalised, so community leaders around the country will soon face the same issues as Cumbrians dealt with in the 1990s and 2013 except that if progress is to be made on this most intractable of challenges, this time they will need to be willing participants and the nuclear industry and government will need to be more persuasive over the science of safe storage.

Photo credit: Simon Ledingham [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Jack Stopforth