The radioactive waste produced by nuclear power remains harmful for tens or hundreds of thousands of years. The government is desperate for a solution – but burying it under the Lake District isn’t the answer.
The UK’s nuclear legacy is costing us a fortune. The Department of Energy and Climate Change spends two-thirds of its budget looking after the UK's nuclear wastes and the facilities which have created them. That figure is rising: last year DECC had to find an extra £4 billion to cover the spiraling cost.
The government and nuclear industry are desperate for a solution. It’s hard to argue that nuclear power is the cheapest way to produce low carbon electricity if you’re spending billions looking after nuclear waste. It also makes no sense to build new nuclear power plants without a way to deal with the wastes they would produce.
Their latest half-baked plan is to dig a big hole in the ground and bury the wastes in it.
The least dangerous thing to do with nuclear wastes is to store them above ground where we can keep an eye on them. However, if you are determined to dispose of waste underground, then what really matters is geology. You need to be absolutely certain that the place you’ve chosen can safely store wastes until they are no longer a danger to the public and the environment.
The government knew that forcing a community to host the dump wouldn’t be popular. So instead of identifying the safest place to store waste underground, it asked councils to volunteer for the unenviable task. Only once an area has been volunteered would important facts like whether it was even geologically suitable be considered.
So far, only West Cumbria and Romney Marsh have expressed an interest. Romney Marsh on Kent’s south coast is a non-starter. The government decided against building a new nuclear power station there because the marsh is flood prone. The dump is opposed by Kent County Council, whose leader described it as "utter madness" and by neighbouring East Sussex County Council.
West Cumbria's bid shouldn’t be taken any more seriously either. For starters, it definitely has the wrong geology. There have been several studies over the recent decades, including an in-depth study from the 1990s when the nuclear industry last proposed a dump for the region. Each has shown that West Cumbria would not be the right place to dump nuclear wastes.
Then there’s the Lake District National Park. Tourism is a major part of the Cumbrian economy, but it's doubtful that ramblers and holidaying families would be encouraged by nuclear waste dumps.
Unfortunately, Cumbria has one of the most vocal nuclear lobby groups in the country, which is foursquare behind the dump. But many local people are concerned that it may get the go ahead despite being unsafe. This is what the public inquiry inspector accused the government of doing the last time around.
The government says it won’t be forcing any community to host the national nuclear dump. It says that communities can opt out at any time. Many communities in Cumbria don’t believe a word of it and a large number of the town and parish councils have already refused to host the dump. The Cumbrian Association of Local Councils voiced very strong concerns over the whole proposal.
Last year a group of vested interests, including Copeland and Allerdale Borough Councils and Cumbria County Council, published an enormous, jargon-filled consultation document. Despite including references to 263 supplementary documents and a free DVD, it forgot to mention that Cumbria does not have the right geology to store nuclear waste. Their own polling shows that most people came away with no idea what was really being proposed.
This week, that ‘partnership’ met for the final time. Now
Copeland, Allerdale and Cumbria councils must each decide whether to press on. With
widespread opposition from local communities and clear evidence that the
geology is all wrong, the councils must decide to ditch the dump and oppose this
crazy plan to turn the Lake District into a dumping ground for nuclear waste.