NUKE WASTE TO BE BURIED IN THE WEST?
Western Daily Press, 17 September 2005
At first sight, the nine page document seems innocuous enough. It is a list which includes beautiful islands like Lundy, untouched nature reserves like Dartmoor and some stunning protected forests. But this is no advertisement for the wonders of rural England. It is instead a secret list of 537 sites deemed a suitable dumping ground for the nation's nuclear waste. It includes no fewer than 76 sites in the West.
The document was written in the 1980s by Nirex, a team of Government geologists and specialists, when secrecy was considered paramount. It was only recently released under the Freedom of Information Act.
"The list was drawn up in the 1980s in secret because that's how things were done at that time," said Chris Murray, managing director of Nirex. "That was a fatal mistake."
Dealing with nuclear waste has been a political hot potato for more than 50 years. Britain now has half-a million cubic metres of highly radioactive waste - enough to fill five Albert Halls - in ponds and tanks at power plants and other sites around the country.
These surface stores were always meant to be interim measures for dealing with nuclear waste, the Achilles heel of the UK's atomic energy programme. They represent, after all, a radiation risk and a target for terrorists.
Yet for almost 30 years, successive British governments have chosen to sweep the problem under the carpet rather than take decisive action. But this is one problem which will not go away. The present generation of nuclear power stations are creaking towards the end of their shelf life.
In the West, for example, just two stations remain active - Oldbury in South Gloucestershire and Hinkley Point in Somerset. By 2011 both will be decommissioned, while by 2023 all current nuclear power stations in the UK will be closed for business. The legacy will be an estimated 500,000 cubic metres of nuclear waste, including everything from fuel rods to turbines and reactor components.
The expense will be vast. Current estimates suggest that it will cost £58billion to dispose of the waste, while decommissioning West nuclear plants is likely to cost £3billion.
So what is being done? Since November 2003 the Committee on Radioactive Waste Management has been consulting top scientists and the public different over options for disposing of waste. It recently published a shortlist of four, and many experts believe it is likely they will recommend burying the nuclear waste deep underground. The committee is expected to report back to the Government in July 2006.
In this context, the sites suggested by the Nirex document could well come into play again. They were selected on two grounds, the first of which was geology to make sure water would not come into contact with the material. The second was the ownership of the land, which is why many of the sites are Government owned.
The managing director of Nirex stressed the list was still relevant. "The one thing I have to say to you is that I cannot rule out Lundy or any other site," he said.
Debate rages, however, over whether it is possible to bury nuclear waste safely for hundreds of thousands of years. The process involves putting the waste in concrete and glass in sealed rock vaults 300 metres below the surface.
But Jim Duffy, a spokesman for the Stop Hinkley campaign group, is particularly concerned about the possibility of Hinkley Point being used as a waste dump. Mr Duffy said: "The containers they are putting the waste into could leak like a teabag." He added: "There is a strong chance the material could leak into the water supply. Future generations could end up drinking it."