A new deep coal mine deep under the sea? Next to Sellafield? Really?

| 5th February 2018
Architect's drawing of proposed new mine

An architect's drawing of the proposed new Woodhouse Colliery deep mine at the former Marchon Industrial site near Woodhouse. 

West Cumbria Mining
The first deep coal mine in Britain for thirty years is being proposed at Whitehaven, with the promise of new jobs in an old mining community. But the site is within five miles of Sellafield. Activists are concerned both about the definite contribution to climate change, as well as the potential threat of a nuclear accident. SAM MOISHA sets out their concerns

The potential for earth tremors and quakes resulting from mining is well known.  The potential for man-made tremors at the Sellafield site is too awful to contemplate.

The first deep coal mine in Britain for 30 years is being proposed in a planning application due to be heard in Kendal on 7 March 2018.  Woodhouse Colliery is proposed for Whitehaven, which is a former mining community with a lot of identity and even nostalgia caught up in the industry. It is also an area with a desperate shortage of jobs.

Mark Kirkbride and West Cumbria Mining [WCM] have applied for consent to build a ‘state of the art’ mine extending under the Irish Sea to extract coking coal for export to the steel industry.  The coal would be taken by train to Redcar for shipping.

Disused anhydrite mine drift tunnels would be reopened to access the coal and the surface buildings would be on a disused ex industrial site known as the Chemical Factory. The old Marchon Chemical works  produced products from Anhydrite. These included detergents and sulphuric acid. 

Employment prospects

WCM put the output of coal at 3.2 million tonnes per annum.  The coal is planned mostly for export to the steel making industry in Europe where the resulting carbon emissions will run directly counter to the Paris agreement on climate change. 

The digging up and burning of such quantities of fossil fuel is clearly completely out of kilter with both UK and international policy.

Cumbria has seen it’s share of extreme climate events in recent years, in particular the severe flooding of Storm Desmond. Allowing Woodhouse Colliery to go ahead would be ensuring that Cumbrian coal plays a part in increased floods, droughts, mudslides, crop failures, famine and wildfires at an international level.

The claim by WCM that they are reducing emissions by transporting the coal by train instead of road is so irrelevant as to be laughable.

WCM has widely publicised that the mine would bring 518 new jobs to Cumbria including 50 apprenticeships. Local people have been invited to ‘pre-register’ for employment prospects. It is completely understandable that some local residents support the proposed mine. Though indeed, many do not. Jobs are in very short supply in West Cumbria.

Radioactive waste

There is in Whitehaven a statue of coal miners. The inscription at the miners’ feet says “End of an Era”. In 2018 with an urgent need to cut carbon, with the UK as signatory to the Paris Agreement and bound by the national framework of the Climate Change Act committing  to an 80 percent reduction in emissions by 2050 - this plan must be a total non-starter.

The potential for earth tremors and quakes resulting from mining is well known.  The potential for man-made tremors at the Sellafield site is too awful to contemplate.

It seems a cruel and ironic hoax on the people of West Cumbria who have been ruthlessly sold the nuclear golden goose  to hold out this carrot of a return to coal mining.

And it gets worse...the undersea mine would be in an area of heavily faulted geology within 5 miles of Sellafield. Sellafield is the most dangerous place in Europe, storing radioactive spent fuel rods in crumbling pools of water.  

Friends of the Earth raises some crucial questions in its formal objection to the WCM plan.  "We would also query whether or not there has been robust enough analysis of the potential for seismicity (and subsidence) relating to well known nuclear facilities in the wider area, including Sellafield and proposed new facility at Moorside?

"What potential is there for seismicity to effect these and other facilities (including low level waste repository at Drigg) and the possible high level radioactive waste facility which has been proposed in West Cumbria for some time."

Repeated complaints

The potential for earth tremors and quakes resulting from mining is well known.  The potential for man-made tremors at the Sellafield site is too awful to contemplate.

In 2016 The Ecologist reported that: “Especially serious are the ~20 large holding tanks at Sellafield containing thousands of litres of extremely radiotoxic fission products." 

Discussing these tanks, the previous management consortium, Nuclear Management Partners, stated in 2012: "There is a mass of very hazardous [nuclear] waste onsite in storage conditions that are extraordinarily vulnerable, and in facilities that are well past their designated life"

The National Audit Office (NAO) stated these tanks pose "significant risks to people and the environment". One official review published in The Lancet concluded that, at worst, an explosive release from the tanks could kill two million Britons and require the evacuation of an area reaching from Glasgow to Liverpool.

These dangerous tanks have also been the subject of repeated complaints from Ireland and Norway who fear their countries could be contaminated if explosions or fires were to occur.

Sustainable jobs

The very nature of earth tremors and quakes is that they are unpredictable, they are always a potential, and for this reason the mine must be stopped.

There has been no critical debate in the national media and precious little in the local media. Radiation Free Lakeland has written to the Health and Safety Executive. It has called for a "moratorium on fossil fuel extraction near nuclear sites". 

It added: "We call for a comprehensive inquiry, which includes the worst-case scenarios that could result from induced seismic activity near nuclear installations. The inquiry should be undertaken honestly and transparently and be fully independent of current government policy."

It is clear that the literal fallout from Woodhouse colliery is just too great in terms of  CO2 based climate disruption as well as the potential for mass death from damage to Sellafield which would make toast of us all.  

Cumbria County Council must act to stop this crazy plan and apply itself to creating clean, safe sustainable jobs for the people of West Cumbria.

This Author

Sam Moisha is a founder member of Transition City Lancaster and a member of Radiation Free Lakeland

The public consultation ends on 17 February 2018. The application reference  is 4/17/9007, West Cumbria Mining, Woodhouse Colliery. Written submissions can be sent to Mrs Rachel Brophy, Cumbria County Council Development Control Team, County Offices, Busher Walk,  Kendal, Cumbria LA9 4RQ or via mail at developmentcontrol@cumbria.gov.uk. There is also an online petition.


The Ecologist has a formidable reputation built on fifty years of investigative journalism and compelling commentary from writers across the world. Now, as we face the compound crises of climate breakdown, biodiversity collapse and social injustice, the need for rigorous, trusted and ethical journalism has never been greater. This is the moment to consolidate, connect and rise to meet the challenges of our changing world. The Ecologist is owned and published by the Resurgence Trust. Support The Resurgence Trust from as little as £1. Thank you. Donate here