(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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
"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
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
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)