UK waste policy runs aground

30 January 2013

Britain's radioactive waste disposal process has stalled after conflicting votes between regional and local government. The borough of Copeland voted to continue exploring its suitability, but it lies within the county of Cumbria which voted against the idea.

It had been previously agreed that the process to find a disposal site for UK radioactive waste needed positive approval at both borough and county level. "As such, the current process will be brought to a close..." said the Department of Energy and Cilmate Change, which "will now embark on a renewed drive" to engage with other communities that may be interested and able to host a disposal site.

The site selection process is based on a principle of voluntarism under which communities explore their options with the right to withdraw at any time. The same idea has been practised with success in Finland and Sweden to find suitable and welcoming places for radioactive waste disposal.

Waste at a standstill

The nuclear energy industry is one of the largest employers in west Cumbria, thanks to the decades-long presence of the Sellafield site, and this partly explains the strong support from local people and unions.

In fact, Sellafield already hosts the vast majority of UK high-level radioactive wastes at an interim storage facility. Cumbria County Council today "urged government to make the necessary investment to improve the existing surface storage facilities at Sellafield so that there is a more robust... arrangement in the decades to come while the government finds a permanent solution."

"The nuclear industry is, and will continue to be, a key part of the Cumbrian economy," said the council.

The Cumbrian boroughs of Copeland and Allerdale were the two communities that responded to a government call for interest, offering two competing sites, and Cumbria itself joined them to progress through three initial stages lasting about four years. Today's votes concerned whether to move to the fourth stage, including initial studies to determine the basic geologic suitability of the areas.

Copeland Borough Council voted 6-1 to continue, but Cumbria County Council contradicted it with a 7-3 vote against. With the county's no vote, both options were ruled out. Allerdale had been due to vote, but this became academic after Cumbria's move.

On behalf of Copeland, councillor Elaine Woodburn said, "whilst we do not know whether this area would be suitable to host a repository, we thought it was appropriate to continue in the process to try and find out." She pointed out the results of an opinion poll showed that Copeland residents supported the decision.

Explaining its opposition, Cumbria County Council said that the legislation to guarantee its right to withdraw from the process had not been put in place despite assurances from government. Councillor Eddie Martin said: "The fact remains the right of withdrawal is not yet enshrined in statute and we could not take the risk of saying yes today without this being absolutely nailed down."

Researched and written
by World Nuclear News