Rejected nuclear waste site in Cumbria back on list of potential locations

| 29th October 2010
Barrels of nuclear waste

Scientists say nowhere in West Cumbria is suitable for the deep disposal of nuclear waste because of concerns over water contamination

Campaigners and scientists express concern over the inclusion of a site near Sellafield in latest list of locations considered for deep underground disposal of nuclear waste

The UK government is considering disposing nuclear waste in a site previously rejected because of concerns over the contamination of water supplies, The Ecologist has learnt.

Plans led by the nuclear waste disposal body Nirex (now known as the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority) to dump nuclear waste at Longlands Farm site near the village of Gosforth in Cumbria were rejected by the then environment secretary John Gummer in 1997. However the government has continued to pursue the idea of deep geological disposal and three local authorities in Cumbria have expressed a willingness to store nuclear waste.

A report published this week by the British Geological Survey (BGS) has now ruled out locations in these areas deemed too risky due to concerns over groundwater contamination and potential minerals such as coal that future generations may wish to exploit.

However, it does not rule out the Longlands Farm site, close to the Sellafield nuclear facility. It was rejected by public enquiry in 1997 as being too risky a site for disposal because of concerns of radioactive waste contaminating water supplies. DECC claims the survey had used 'available geological information' in making its decision.

'It raises questions about the integrity of the whole process if areas that were previously rejected are now back under consideration,' said Greenpeace nuclear campaigner Jean McSorley.

She said the nuclear industry claims knowledge has improved since the mid-1990s and that engineers can now overcome the previous concerns, '''what nature can't provide with the geology, we can engineer round it'', is what nuclear engineers say,' explained McSorley.

In a letter to a local Cumbrian newspaper, Professor David Smythe, of University of Glasgow, who worked for Nirex, said the planning inquiry had 'effectively ruled out the whole of West Cumbria as a suitable location for nuclear waste disposal'.

He said fears of groundwater contamination were obvious and that the BGS survey was 'irrelevant'.

'Just stand with your back to the sea, anywhere on the coastal plain, looking inland at the mountains of the national park. Imagine the rain falling on these mountains, percolating – however slowly and imperceptibly – through fissures and cracks in these slates and lavas, down towards the sea, over centuries and aeons.

'Thanks to the height of the mountains inland, means that some of this water can percolate back upwards to the surface on its progress to the sea. It is this natural flow pattern that rules out the coastal region from ever being a candidate site; it does not conform to internationally agreed standards for such a repository. In the long term, nature cannot be defied by engineering,' he said.

Deep disposal risks

A recent Greenpeace report, published last month, warned more generally that plans to dispose of nuclear waste deep underground had 'serious potential for something to go badly wrong'.

Aside from groundwater contamination, it also highlighted problems including corrosion of containers, heat and gas formation leading to pressurisation and cracking of the storage chamber, unexpected chemical reactions, geological uncertainties, future ice ages, earthquakes and human interference.

'People need to grasp the enormity of the challenge,' report author Dr Helen Wallace had said. ' This waste is extremely radioactive and very hot so it’s going to significantly change the water flow deep underground; the corrosion of materials and the repository will release large quantities of gas which have to escape somehow.’

Energy minister Charles Hendry said geological disposal was 'the long-term sustainable solution for dealing with radioactive waste'.

'Today’s report, commissioned from the British Geological Survey, is a step forward. The geological disposal facility site selection process is based on voluntarism and partnership and these results do not present any reason why West Cumbria cannot continue to consider whether or not to participate in that process,' he said.

The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) claim the local authorities in Cumbria have been 'bought off with promises of extra funding'.

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