Nuclear Waste Disposal

Since this website started in 2010, the issue of nuclear waste disposal has never been far from the local media headlines. It goes back much farther than this, of course, in fact back to the 1950s when the Sellafield site in Cumbria (then in Cumberland) was called Windscale and became home to the UK’s first nuclear power plant, Calder Hall. Somewhat surprisingly, it took some time after this for finding a long-term solution to the disposal of nuclear waste to be recognised as a pressing problem. It is even more important now that the UK has decided to proceed with the construction of new nuclear power plants.

For some years, it has been government policy that the best option for at least the high-level nuclear waste is storage underground in a so-called geological disposal facility (GDF). The search for a suitable location for a GDF began in 2008 in the “Managing radioactive waste safely (MRWS)” programme. At that time, Allerdale and Copeland Boroughs were the only areas in the UK that volunteered to look into the possibility of locating a GDF in their areas. In January 2013, Allerdale and Copeland Borough Councils voted to continue with the next stage of the MRWS process, but Cumbria County Council voted against proceeding further down this path. This meant that the MRWS process in West Cumbria was terminated. As there were no other volunteer areas, this decision sent the UK government back to the drawing board to develop a new system for finding a location for the GDF.

The new process is being managed by Radioactive Waste Management (RWM), a subsidiary of the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority. You can find more information on how this new approach works here. In summary, the first stage is working with communities to identify potentially-suitable sites. Although the details have changed, government policy remains what it was in the MRWS process in that the overall process can only start if a local community (which can be just one person) proposes an area for consideration. This initiates an assessment process which is described further in this document. A key element in the selection process has always been the geological suitability of the proposed  site. The new selection process (see more info here) represents an improvement on the MRWS process in that basic geological data has been provided for all areas of England, Cumbria being covered in sub-area 5 of the Northern Region (see here).  

During the MRWS process, there was considerable opposition, mainly on the grounds of unsuitable geology, to the implementation of a GDF in Cumbria and this led to the formation of a number of campaigning groups. Perhaps the most prominent is the Cumbria Trust, which collates information and comments on the ongoing selection process. Much useful technical information on the history of this saga (going back to the origins in the 1980s and through the NIREX investigation of the 1990s) has been provided by two eminent geologists – David Smythe and Stuart Haszeldine.

This update is timely as Copeland Borough Council agreed in July 2020 to open discussions with RWM about siting a GDF within its area. Importantly however, the council has stated that such a plant should not be built within the Lake District National Park, but the exploration area includes the in-shore area up to 22km off the coast. In response to a question (from me by email), RWM has stated that “RWM is currently talking with multiple interested parties throughout England as they consider whether or not a GDF could be right for them and their communities”. The names of individual interested parties are confidential until such time that official working groups are formed. It will be interesting to see what develops.

As we are now in a more active phase, I will endeavour to keep this page up-to-date via the comments section below as events unfold.

Leslie Webb, August 2020.

2 Responses to Nuclear Waste Disposal

  1. Leslie Webb says:

    Further to the penultimate paragraph above, it has been announced by Radioactive Waste Management today (see here) that Copeland Borough Council has formally formed a working group to take forward discussions about the siting of a GDF in their area (but excluding the Lake District National Park).

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