The last time the Government went looking for a permanent home for higher-level nuclear waste, West Cumbria was the only area to express interest.
The process to select a site for an underground waste repository – otherwise known as a geological disposal facility (GDF) – came to an abrupt halt in 2013 when Cumbria County Council exercised its right of veto.
Now the search is back on, only this time with proposed changes that would take away the local authority veto.
Instead, there would be a “test of public support” in the area selected, which might involve a local referendum, consultation or opinion polling.
West Cumbria is likely to come under consideration again, not least because much of the intermediate and high-level waste destined for a GDF is already at Sellafield, stored above ground.
Rob Johnston, Chief Executive of Cumbria Chamber of Commerce, said: “There are two fundamental issues at stake.
“Firstly, is a GDF the right place to put higher-level nuclear waste, some of which will remain hazardous for hundreds of thousands of years?
“The Government thinks it is and so do Finland, Sweden, France, Canada and the USA, which are pursuing this option. Not everyone agrees though, and this isn’t an area that we feel technically qualified to comment on.
It’s vital that the Government finds a permanent home for higher-level waste. Leaving it where it is isn’t an option.
“But we do think it’s vital that the Government finds a permanent home for higher-level waste. Leaving it where it is isn’t an option.
“The Government’s position is that we must have a process to deal with higher-level waste if we are to proceed with new nuclear power stations, including Moorside in Cumbria. So it’s essential we get to grips with this.
“The second issue is, if the UK does have a GDF, where should it be?
“Were West Cumbria to be considered again – and realistically, it’s likely that it will be – there will be repercussions for businesses across the county.
“There would be economic benefits in the immediate area of the GDF. The Government is talking about 1,000 jobs during the construction phase and early years of operation, then 600 well-paid jobs for the next 100 years.
“On the other hand there is potential for ‘brand damage’, particularly to hospitality and food businesses all over Cumbria.
“The debate over site selection will attract international media attention and is likely to be highly emotive with talk of ‘poisoning the environment’. That could do harm to Cumbria’s image as a clean, green and wholesome place.”
Energy Minister Richard Harrington launched a consultation last week, Working with Communities: Implementing Geological Disposal, setting out the process for selecting a site for a GDF.
The consultation runs until April 19. There is more information here.
Writing in the foreword, Mr Harrington says: “We believe that the best way to select a site for a GDF is in partnership with communities.
“International experience shows that an open and transparent site selection process that engages constructively with willing communities provides a more robust basis for success.”
The document sets out how the search would proceed led by Radioactive Waste Management Ltd (RWM), an offshoot of the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority – the body that manages Sellafield.
The first major change, compared with the previous search, is that “anyone with an interest in the GDF” can put forward a potential site. That might be an individual landowner, for example.
Previously, it was up to local authorities to come forward.
The search area could be as small as a cluster of district council wards, or it could be a whole local authority area and may cross authority boundaries.
To move to the next stage, “formative engagement”, local authorities would be notified but would be involved only if they chose to be.
A formative engagement team would “build confidence in the community engagement process” and answer questions from local people.
Next a “Community Partnership” would be set up, made up of a dozen or so representatives from organisations identified during the formative engagement phase.
They could include local councillors, residents, businesses and members of community and voluntary groups.
The Community Partnership would sign a Community Agreement to set out a way of working with RWM.
At this point, the Government would provide £1m a year funding for the search area, rising to £2.5m for communities that agree to progress to deep investigative boreholes to assess whether the geology is suitable for a GDF.
This would fund initiatives that provide economic development opportunities, enhance the natural or built environment, or improve community wellbeing.
We are concerned that the process might not take account of the views of businesses outside the immediate vicinity of a GDF.
An investment panel would review and decide applications for funding.
The Community Partnership could withdraw from the site selection process at any time up to the final stage, the “test of public support” to gauge the views of local people on whether they want to host a GDF.
This test might be carried out through a local referendum, a formal consultation or statistically representative polling. The Community Partnership decides when the test of public support takes place and the method used.
Although local authorities would not have a veto, as was the case the last time, the consultation paper acknowledges that “if the local authority representatives no longer wish to support the process proceeding, then we recognise it is unlikely that the Community Partnership will be able to launch any test of public support at that time.”
The crucial difference being that the “local authority representatives” in question would be those on the Community Partnership, drawn from the immediate search area, not councillors across the whole county.
The consultation paper says: “Unlike the previous process, we are not specifying the need for any predetermined decision points for local authorities at any point during the process of formative and constructive engagement.”
An application to build a GDF would have to clear statutory planning and regulatory processes “to ensure that the development is appropriate, safe and secure”. As a “nationally significant infrastructure project”, the planning application would be decided by the Planning Inspectorate.
Above ground, buildings and waste receipt and transfer infrastructure would extend over an area of 1sq kilometre feeding underground vaults and engineered tunnels for the disposal of waste.
These would be located at a depth of between 200 and 1,000 metres, and cover an area of between 10 and 20sq kilometres.
The Government is proposing a multi-barrier system to contain the waste. It would be cemented or vitrified, enclosed in metal or concrete containers, surrounded by a clay or cement buffer and then rock.
Ministers expect the site selection process to take 15 to 20 years, and construction another 10 years. The GDF would operate for 100 years or more.
Rob added: “The search process appears to have been engineered to diminish the influence of local authorities and so increase the chance of a successful outcome from the Government’s point of view.
“We are concerned that the process might not take account of the views of businesses outside the immediate vicinity of a GDF. There would, without doubt, be impacts on businesses over a much wider area.
“It’s crucial that the Government recognises this, and that it provides funding to mitigate adverse impacts on businesses further afield.
“Last time the Government accepted our argument that they should pay for marketing campaigns to promote Cumbrian tourism and food products, to offset the adverse publicity during the GDF selection process.
“And if Cumbria is expected to host a ‘nationally significant infrastructure project’, we should receive significant investment in our own infrastructure – perhaps a Morecambe Bay crossing or another major project of that size.
“The Chamber will be watching developments closely, and we’d value any comments that businesses have on these latest proposals.”