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Sunday, 20 April 2014

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Cumbria could join exclusive global club if it chooses to stay in running for nuclear waste storage facility

Cumbria could be following in the footsteps of several international communities if it decides to stay in the running to house an underground nuclear waste storage facility.

Finland repository photo
The site of the repository in Finland

Three local authorities – Allerdale, Copeland and Cumbria County Council – have already expressed an interest.

So far the county is the only area being considered.

The crunch decision on whether or not to move onto the next phase will be taken by senior councillors on Wednesday.

The possibility of similar underground storage projects has been explored in a number of countries – including France, Canada, the US and Finland – and the UK Government has consulted the agencies involved.

A spokesman for the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) said: “The Government has drawn extensively upon the experiences and good practice of the international community in formulating the process by which a Geological Disposal Facility would be implemented in the UK.

“In light of experience around the world, the Government decided that the fairest way to find a suitable location was to ask communities to volunteer and then work with them to explore whether the circumstances – including the geology – were appropriate to proceed, giving them the option to pull out at any stage up until when construction would start.”

He added that, before the geological option was chosen, the Government made clear that it wanted all the options that had been given serious consideration by the international scientific community to be reviewed.

Other options included:

  • Indefinite storage;
  • Disposal of radioactive waste in the sea;
  • Disposal of the waste in the ice caps.

The spokesman said: “These findings were turned into recommendations built around the view that geological disposal is the best available approach.

“Geological disposal is also internationally recognised as the preferred approach for the long-term management of higher activity radioactive waste.”

The underground facility could be as big as Carlisle and the progression from stage three to stage four of the process will involve tests to fully assess the suitability of selected sites in the west of the county.

Engineers have said it would be a bigger construction challenge than the Channel Tunnel. It would involve tunnelling between 200 and 1,000 metres, need around 1,000 construction workers and would take an estimated 15 years to complete – at a projected cost of between £12 billion and £20 billion.

The waste would need to be stored for tens of thousands of years. It is understood that the work could begin in 2025 with completion by 2040.

Underground nuclear waste storage projects around the world include:

Canada

  • A number of areas in south-western and western Ontario have expressed an interest in housing a waste storage facility
  • The process is in its very early stages
  • Final choice could take between seven and 10 years
  • The Nuclear Waste Management Organization has designed a nine-step process for site selection – the earliest it could be completed would be about 2035
  • Construction could employ up to 2,000 workers and the estimated cost is between $18 to $24 billion – with 200 permanent employees once operational

France

  • Work is already underway on geological tests underground outside the small town of Bure in the north east of the country
  • Scientists are convinced that the rock formations could safely house highly radioactive waste
  • Plans for the facility are expected to be sent to the French government next year and, if approved by the French National Assembly in 2016, construction would begin the following year
  • The site would cover an are of 30-square-kilometres and could be open by 2025

Finland and Sweden

  • Construction workers at Onkalo have nearly finished a 5km tunnel, to a depth of about 400m, leading to a network of repositories that will start storing waste from 2020
  • Total costs are estimated at 3.3 billion euros – equivalent to $4.1 billion
  • It will take waste from the four reactors in Finland – there are plans to increase this number to seven by around 2020
  • Most Finns are supportive of nuclear power and Finland took its lead from a similar project in Sweden where the Forsmark disposal site is due to start storage around 2025

The US

  • Since 1983 the US government has spent almost $15 billion assessing Nevada's Yucca Mountain as an underground storage site
  • The plan was shelved in 2010 by President Barack Obama when he appointed a commission to revisit the issue
  • A year later the commission decided that there was no alternative to burying the waste underground and recommended the government find a new site

Other countries

Decisions on permanent waste disposal have also stalled in Germany where plans met strong resistance from environmentalists – it had planned to open its own long-term repository in 2035

Japan is considered too earthquake-prone and densely populated to try underground disposal – a loss of public trust over nuclear safety following the Fukushima accident has made it even more difficult than before to find a host site

Several smaller European countries have banded together to form a European Repository Development Organisation to work on the concept of a shared facility

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