In 2008 the UK Government called for potential volunteers to host a geological disposal facility - an engineered, underground repository for the country’s higher activity radioactive wastes.
Allerdale Borough Council, Copeland Borough Council and Cumbria County Council decided to discuss the possibility of this facility being located somewhere in West Cumbria.
The councils set up the West Cumbria Managing Radioactive Waste Safely Partnership to help them decide whether the area should take part in the search for somewhere to put a repository, without any commitment to have it.
The Partnership includes all the councils in Cumbria and organisations such as the Cumbria Association of Local Councils, the Lake District National Park Authority, Cumbria Tourism, Churches Together in Cumbria, Cumbria Chamber of Commerce, trades unions and the National Farmers Union.
Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth Cumbria and Cumbrians Opposed to a Radioactive Environment were invited to join the Partnership but declined.
These organisations, and some other local groups, have made it clear they are strongly opposed to geological disposal of nuclear waste in West Cumbria.
The Partnership has met in public roughly every six weeks for over two years to consider the issues.
Its work has been managed by independent facilitators to ensure no one view dominates and the process is fairly managed.
Partnership members have heard evidence from a number of outside experts, commissioned independent research and listening to local people.
The Partnership has produced a consultation document and now wants to find out what you think about whether West Cumbria should take part in the search for somewhere to put a repository. Details about how to get the consultation document are available at the end of the film.
WHAT IS GEOLOGICAL DISPOSAL?
A geological disposal facility, or repository, would be for the higher activity radioactive wastes currently stored above ground at sites around the UK.
A large amount of these wastes – about seventy per cent by volume - are currently at Sellafield and that was a key reason for the councils deciding to learn more about what an underground repository might mean.
These wastes include high-level waste which comes from the reprocessing of used nuclear fuel at Sellafield. This is the most radioactive and generates significant amounts of heat.
The repository would also take the intermediate-level waste which generates much lower levels of heat.
The waste decays over time but some of it remains hazardous for many thousands of years.
A geological disposal facility is currently being built in Finland and the tunnels there now go down to about 400 metres, from where the caverns for the nuclear waste will be opened up.
This kind of repository was recommended in the UK by an independent committee of experts. The Committee on Radioactive Waste Management - or CoRWM - said that in the light of current knowledge, geological disposal is the best long-term option to deal with the higher activity radioactive wastes.
They’d looked at the evidence – both in the UK and overseas.
As well as Finland a number of other countries like Sweden and France are also planning to build repositories. Each of these facilities is likely to be different, depending on the geology of the location where they are built.
The Committee on Radioactive Waste Management said geological disposal would be safer in the longer term than storage above ground, for example because of the risk of terrorism.
They also said we can’t rely on societies hundreds or thousands of years from now to manage these wastes safely above ground.
Some people and organisations are not convinced about the long term safety of geological disposal.
However, the recommendations made by the Committee on Radioactive Waste Management received wide ranging support from experts and the public.
WHAT MIGHT A REPOSITORY LOOK LIKE?
So what might a repository look like?
There would be buildings above ground where the radioactive material would arrive, workshops and offices.
The Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, the body responsible for implementing geological disposal, says it’s possible that there could also be other developments. These might include an interim waste store and a waste packaging facility for waste created by any new UK nuclear reactors.
It’s thought the surface facilities would cover about one square kilometre – about a sixth of the area of the Sellafield site.
These facilities could be above the underground repository or separated from it by up to 10 kilometres, possibly further, connected by tunnels.
The repository itself would be located between 200 metres and 1,000 metres underground.
These underground facilities would extend over a large area – somewhere between about six square kilometres up to perhaps as much as twenty five square kilometres, depending on the geology of the site selected and what goes into it.
To give an idea of the scale, the Sellafield site is about six square kilometres.
Therefore, at its smallest, the underground repository could be about the same size as the Sellafield site.
At its largest the footprint of the underground facilities could be about four times larger than this.
However, detailed designs for a repository would depend on the geology of a particular site and the vaults could be split over a number of different levels.
HOW MUCH WASTE WOULD GO INTO A REPOSITORY?
The amount and types of waste that would go into a repository are important because they will affect things like the size of the facility.
The waste would arrive at a repository from sites around the UK but not from other countries.
A repository could also take waste from any new nuclear power stations built in the future, if that was agreed.
Based on current estimates of the amount of waste that could go into a repository we estimate that the underground facilities could be between six and eleven times the size of the Royal Albert Hall in terms of volume.
However, it’s not possible to be certain how much waste might go into a repository this far in advance.
The Partnership believes that, if West Cumbria does take part in the search for a site, it would be important to make sure that no changes could be made to the amount and types of waste that would go into it without the agreement of local community representatives.
Partnership members also want to make sure that the designs for a repository do not rule out the option to retrieve waste from the facility at a later date. The Government has said they’re content that the issue of ‘retrievability’ is left open at this stage.
THE SAFETY OF A REPOSITORY?
The safety of a repository is obviously the most important issue.
If a repository is not going to be safe in West Cumbria it should not be built here.
Some people argue that a repository could never be safe and in particular they’re concerned that there would be a risk of dangerous levels of radioactivity reaching the surface many years in the future.
The Nuclear Decommissioning Authority says geological disposal involves a series of engineered and natural barriers which prevent the radioactivity escaping to the surface in amounts that could cause harm to life and the environment. This is called the multi-barrier approach.
The waste is first made as safe as possible and then put into a specially designed glass or cement and into engineered containers.
The waste containers are placed in tunnels or vaults constructed deep underground in the disposal facility.
The vaults can then be backfilled and sealed.
A further barrier is provided by nature through the hundreds of metres of rock between the underground facility and the surface.
The independent regulators - the Environment Agency, the Office for Nuclear Regulation, and Department for Transport – would also have an important role in ensuring a repository was not built or operated unless they are content that it would be safe, secure and environmentally acceptable.
On the basis of the information available at this stage the Partnership believes the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority and the regulators have suitable capability and processes in place to protect local residents, the workforce and the environment.
However, there are many important questions about safety that cannot be answered until a site is selected and more research has been carried out.
If this process continues, further monitoring and independent review would be essential as more detailed plans for a repository are developed.
It would be essential for any potential repository site to have suitable geology.
Some parts of West Cumbria have already been screened out as obviously unsuitable for the underground facilities after a basic geological study. This is mainly because these areas have things like coal and iron ore people may want to use at a later date.
However, the surface facilities could still go in these areas.
Some people argue that an inquiry in the 1990s and other evidence show that the whole of West Cumbria is geologically unsuitable for a repository. They say the rocks and the underground flow of water in the area are too complex and unpredictable.
The Partnership has reached an initial conclusion that this view is not widely supported within the professional geological community.
The Committee on Radioactive Waste Management also says “Our position is that there is presently no credible scientific case to support the contention that all of West Cumbria is geologically unsuitable”.
If West Cumbria takes part in the search for a site there would be detailed geological tests of the area including deep boreholes.
The Partnership believes that without more detailed investigations it is not possible to reach a conclusion about whether there is anywhere in the area where the geology is suitable.
WHAT IMPACTS MIGHT THERE BE?
There are a range of possible negative and positive impacts we will also need to consider.
For example, this would be a major industrial development involving the removal and disposal of a large amount of rock, similar in scale to the building of the Channel Tunnel. The construction of the facilities would therefore have a significant impact on local communities.
A development this size would also create challenges in terms of the area’s road and rail infrastructure. How would these be dealt with?
What affect might a repository have on the area’s present and future tourism industry and on the environment? Would it affect the Lake District National Park? Would there be any impact on people’s health?
The Nuclear Decommissioning Authority estimate that on average there would be about 550 people a year employed building and operating a repository. But how many jobs would go to local people? And could a repository lead to other investment?
Ultimately people in the area would need to decide if there were going to be significant negative impacts and, if so, whether it was possible for these to be adequately mitigated or compensated for.
The Partnership is as satisfied as we can be at this stage that it would be possible to assess and manage any environmental, social and economic impacts appropriately.
However, we would only have a clear picture of what the impacts and benefits would be if a site is identified and more detailed plans are produced.
A COMMUNITY BENEFITS PACKAGE?
The Government says that if a repository like the one in Finland was built here there would be a community benefits package, in recognition of the essential service to the nation that was being provided.
In other countries this has included things such as extra investment to generate jobs, new facilities for local people and infrastructure improvements.
We can’t be certain what the UK Government might agree to this far in advance and whether the amount and type of these benefits would match the expectations of people in the area. These would need to be negotiated by community representatives if the area takes part in the search for a site and made legally binding before any commitments are made.
However, we have agreed a set of Principles with the Government as the basis for any future negotiations.
For example, these principles make it clear that community benefits would have to be in addition to the investment that would be necessary to create a repository and its associated facilities and in addition to those the community would normally expect.
We’re at an early, but important, stage in this process.
The Partnership now wants to get your views before it presents its final report to the councils early in 2012. After that, the councils will make a formal decision about whether or not to take part in the search for a site.
If there is a decision to go to that next stage, there would be studies to look at a wide range of scientific, social,economic and environmentalcriteria. A community partnership would scrutinise the studies in greater detail and ensure local people are involved.
The detailed geological investigations would then take place in areas that have been identified as potentially suitable.
If a suitable site is found it would be necessary for the councils to make a final decision about whether to have a repository in West Cumbria. They would have to show that there was credible support for their decision among local people. There would be a right to withdraw from the process at any time up until this point.
That would probably be more than a decade from now, before work could start on the underground facility.
WHAT DO YOU THINK?
It’s now time to decide what you think would be best for the area and have your say.
We are not at the stage of identifying potential sites for a repository, so there are a number of questions that we don’t know the answers to.
Some of these questions are important and, if West Cumbria does enter the siting process, a lot of work would need to be done before we could get the answers we need.
The key questions we need to consider now are ‘do we know enough, and is what we know acceptable to us at this stage to justify taking part in the search for a site or should we say we don’t want to go any further in this process?’
You can find out more about the Partnership’s initial conclusions by reading the consultation document. There is also a shorter overview document available. Then fill in the consultation form to let us know what you think.
To get a copy of the full consultation document, the shorter overview document and find out how you can get more involved visit the Partnership’s website http://www.westcumbriamrws.org.uk/
You can get in touch with the Partnership by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or you can call a freephone number 0800 048 8912
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