Friday, 24 August 2012

Nuclear waste disposal: The definitive report condensed

by Ellis Butcher

Nuclear dump graphicThe experts call it a “geological disposal facility”. Opponents call it a “nuke dump”. They all agree it’ll contain “high level and intermediate nuclear waste”.
Artist's impression of how the underground repository might look
A history-making vote takes place on October 11 which represents one of Cumbria’s most important ever nuclear decisions.A trio of councils, involving hundreds of community leaders, decides on whether West Cumbria takes part in a search to site a massive underground bunker containing the UK’s most toxic nuclear waste. Business Editor Ellis Butcher looks at the definitive report facing them.
This is the skull and crossbones stuff. The worst from the nuclear process, the residue from the bowels of nuclear reactors which lasts for thousands and thousands of years.
Some argue a repository will create hundreds of jobs year-after-year and lever a multi-million Government pay day for west Cumbria to sweeten the pill. Others argue it will cost jobs, wreck tourism and daub one of England’s finest landscapes with a big dirty nuke brush.
Few issues polarise opinion like the nuclear legacy conundrum.

We all know nuclear waste is produced. Less well known is that it is currently stored above ground at 36 sites in the UK – the vast bulk at Sellafield.
It’s a historical arrangement that needs to be modernised. The current storage arrangements also unnerves ministers and unsettles Government spooks forever scanning the horizon for the next terror threat.
The pressing question facing the UK is: “Where can we find a place to store all the bad stuff in the future, putting it out of harm’s way?
Underground was the last and the current Government’s thinking. Storing it in an engineered facility with the idea that the radioactivity reduces “over time”.
In short, Cumbria County Council, Allerdale and Copeland councils volunteered to try to help find the answer to this most urgent 21st century industrial question.

This issue has occupied the 17-member West Cumbria Managing Radioactive Waste Safely Partnership (WCMRWSP) for three years.
It has been chaired by councillor Elaine Woodburn, of Copeland Council. Round the table, the partnership consists of representatives and mouthpieces from a vast range of organisations – private and public, from nuclear experts to farming representatives and all of Cumbria’s councils.

The partnership’s final report – a hefty 270-page plus document neither proposes a recommendation for councils to follow, nor suggests an intended site. That was never its brief.
Instead it has overseen the complex evidence-gathering process. It was shared with about 2,300 people and organisations.
The final was signed off and is now the reference point for the issue.
Recently, it was released into the custody of decision-makers at Cumbria County Council, Allerdale and Copeland.
Between now and October, staff at these authorities and elected-representatives will be pouring over every single line with highlighter pens to inform what they stand up and say in a few weeks.
The report is available to download from the West Cumbria Managing Radioactive Waste Safely website.

Naturally, the most vocal critics of the plan, the partnership and the report are the green lobby.
When the proposals surfaced, so did the opposition.
Long-standing Cumbria-based anti-nuclear campaigner Marianne Birkby, a wildlife artist based in south Cumbria, has been a critical opponent.
Ironically, her father worked at Sellafield as a young man. Marianne established campaign group Radiation Free Lakeland. It has seen Welcome To The Nuke District headlines in national newspapers, gained support from some scientists and found influential allies across the patchwork of parish councils which make up west Cumbria and its district seats of Copeland and Allerdale.
Radiation Free Lakeland was invited to formally join the 17 member partnership but declined.
Instead, it has maintained a distance on the sidelines – protesting, demonstrating, and issuing counter-challenges through the media. So too has academic Dr Ruth Balogh, of Save Our Lake District Don’t Dump Cumbria!.
It developed an associated website and blog and contributed a critical challenge to the partnership. Its opposition is clear.
It understands something needs to be done about nuclear waste but believes the Government of today and in the past has acted too hastily, deciding “without full research and ignoring scientific uncertainties, that deep underground disposal is the answer”. Dr David Smythe, a professor in geology, is also a significant critic of the approach.

In the simplest terms, the issue facing councillors on October 11 is this: Does west Cumbria want to put out its thumb now and embark on a journey – the final destination of which is 17 years away at least and would see a fully operational underground nuclear waste bunker being built in an as yet unidentified part of west Cumbria around 2040?
A bunker that at its shallowest could be deeper than the Eiffel Tower, and at its deepest longer than Scafell Pike?

How the vote goes remains to be seen. But many county and district councillors also have seats in the parishes – that means local residents to answer too.
Many local parish councils have already taken preliminary votes on this issue – the overwhelming majority against it being built on their patch.
How much real influence these initial grassroots expressions will carry in the conclusive vote in October awaits, but is likely to lead to some explosive future parish council meetings.
West Cumbria’s long-standing position as a UK and world nuclear centre means the proposal cannot be easily politically disregarded. If not here, where? If not us, who?
The economic arguments in a depressed economy will weigh heavily towards a yes vote, while the tantalising prospect of more multi-million pound Government funding being funnelled directly into west Cumbria could prove hard to turn down.

Irrespective of a yes or no, the authorities can still walk away from the whole idea at any of the next three stages still to go. A yes doesn’t mean commitment to build.
Diggers will not be breaking ground the next day. It simply commits the area to the next stage.
Eventually, this stage will focus on more comprehensive testing of the “geological suitability” of west Cumbria to house such a facility and radioactive materials underground.
Essentially, testing the ground for compatibility.
Opponents say the proof already exists – the soil in these parts isn’t right. Counter evidence argues that is not the case. Even one nuclear insider, who refused to go on record, questioned the chronology of the whole process.
“Why didn’t they just check the soil first at the start and save three years of work?” The answer is cost. Tests of this nature are so expensive you’d have to be sure you weren’t wasting money before putting pipes in the ground. (Keep reading ....


It is over to you – does Cumbria want an underground nuclear dump?

Cumbrians have a huge decision to make this year. Its implications could be with us for the next 200,000 years. We are going to have to decide whether to allow Britain’s high-level radioactive waste to be buried deep underground at a site somewhere in our county.

Nuclear dump graphic 
An image of what an over ground radioactive waste disposal facility might look like
The waste will include dangerous substances such as plutonium, which has a half-life of 25,000 years. That means that after 25,000 years it will be half as dangerous as it is now – and only after 200,000 years could it be considered safe.

The Government believes burying substances like these deep underground is the safest way to dispose of them.
But opponents argue that there’s nothing safe about waste that remains lethal for centuries – with one protesting: “Nuclear power is the most dangerous way to boil a kettle that man has ever created.”

At the moment this high-level waste is stored above the ground. But as long as it lies there, the Government argues, it could be susceptible to terrorist attack. Underground storage – known as “geological storage” – is also the way most other countries with radioactive waste dispose of theirs. (keep reading

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