(The author is a Reuters market analyst. The views expressed are his own.)
By Gerard Wynn
LONDON Oct 5 Britain risks eroding support for nuclear power if it buries long-term waste near an existing processing facility without considering wider, potentially safer options.
UK authorities are edging towards one region for long-term waste storage where planners have rejected sites twice partly on doubts over geological security and safety.
The United States illustrated the risks of fixating on one area, after spending almost $15 billion assessing and developing Nevada's Yucca Mountain only for President Barack Obama to shelve the plan two years ago and appoint a commission to review the issue, in that case following local opposition.
The political attractiveness of the site in West Cumbria in northwest England, by contrast, partly rests on assumed local familiarity and support given its proximity to Sellafield, where much of the country's nuclear waste is already held above ground.
By focusing on public support, however, Britain may be drawn into protracted analysis of one site which ultimately is found to be geologically unsuitable for deep underground storage of nuclear waste, and a late exit from a massive engineering project whose discounted present cost is expected to be at least 3.7 billion pounds ($5.98 billion).
West Cumbria authorities in Britain this week delayed a formal decision to participate in preliminary investigations.
But their approval seems likely in January because the main delay was for assurance that they could change their minds at any stage before construction, which should be forthcoming given that right of withdrawal already exists.
Finland, France and Britain are among the few developed countries still planning new nuclear power plants in the wake of the Fukushima disaster and expect to start disposing of long-term waste underground from 2020, 2025 and 2040.
Finland and France have now selected their repository sites, a useful step which closes a credibility gap in nuclear power by clarifying where the waste will end up and the taxpayer bill.
As the laggard, Britain should prioritise making the right choice, and try to avoid a third costly, time-consuming planning rejection.
UK nuclear waste inventory (page 20):
Britain commissioned its first reactor in 1956 and has since made several investigations into the best site for long-term storage, which involves constructing an underground grid of tunnels and depositing the waste which is then sealed.
Criteria for site selection include relatively flat rock where groundwater moves slowly in simple formations which avoids complex, potentially leaky faultlines.
In one of the most comprehensive site selection studies, in 1988, "The Way Forward: a discussion document", the nuclear industry summarised site selection priorities based on an earlier geological study in 1986.
It concluded the Sellafield site in Cumbria was "worth scrutiny".
However, the geological survey on which it was partly based, "Geological environments for deep disposal of intermediate level wastes in the UK", published two years earlier, had compiled a map of suitable locations which all but excluded Cumbria.
That 1986 study described the east of England as the least complex and most predictable region geologically.
The nuclear industry body Nirex Limited in the early 1990s asked for planning permission to investigate a proposed site near Sellafield.
The local council refused permission partly on geological suitability: "The County Council is not satisfied, on the basis of the currently available geological, hydrogeological and safety assessment information, that the potential repository zone holds sufficient promise," it said.
Nirex Limited appealed, and was turned down again, in 1996.
"The indications are, in my judgement, still overwhelmingly that this site is not suitable for the proposed repository, and that investigations should now be moved to one of the more promising sites elsewhere," found the appeal inspector C. S. McDonald, dismissing the appeal.
There was a concern that Nirex had prioritised local support over safety.
"The crucial point is that safety was not treated as the most important discriminative factor," the inspector found.
"It seems that the process was affected by a strong desire to locate the repository close to Sellafield. The expert team and the Nirex Board ... used different critical criteria in their final choices - geology for the one and local support for the other."
"It has not been chosen in an objective and methodical manner, and there are strong indications that there may be a choice of sites in a different part of the earth's crust in the UK with greater potential to meet legal and regulatory requirements."
The dismissal, however, did not rule out the possibility of a repository in West Cumbria.
However governments have made local support the cornerstone of its strategy.
The government in 2008 it proposed a staged approach where local communities volunteer to be considered for a preliminary study which would then lead to a more thorough investigation, pending selection and construction of a repository.
"The siting process now rests on decisions on involvement and participation by local communities, rather than on the generation of siting proposals by a waste management organisation acting in concert with central Government," reported the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, in an overview published in 2010.
An obvious flaw, however, is that it depends on volunteers emerging in geologically suitable areas.
Since 2008 only the local council including the Sellafield processing facility and another immediately bordering it have expressed interest.
It is possible that a suitable area will emerge in West Cumbria but the previous planning rejections are a red flag.
The response this week to the news of a three-month delay to approval shows local politicians driven by economic windfalls:
"We have to make (this project) happen. It's make or break for this area - the potential benefits are phenomenal," local member of parliament Jamie Reed told the local newspaper.
Public acceptance is arguably more critical to nuclear power than any other source of energy.
It can only be achieved by guiding the public through the the pros and cons of the technology, in a strategic approach in this case based on the scientifically most suitable areas. ($1 = 0.6186 British pounds)
(Reporting by Gerard Wynn)