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Do we want Cumbria to be the country’s nuclear dump?

It was October 17, 1956, and the eyes of the world were on west Cumbria. In crisp autumn sunshine, the Queen stood on a ceremonial platform and confidently addressed her massed audience of scientists, workers, and TV crews.

“It is with pride that I now open Calder Hall, Britain’s first atomic power station,” declared Her Majesty. She then pulled a lever, propelling the UK into the nuclear age.

It was an historic moment – one which set this country on a controversial path that was strewn with dangers.

As the years rolled by, Sellafield and the rest of the UK's nuclear industry steadily added to the stockpile of radioactive waste, the legacy of power plants like Calder Hall and the fuel reprocessing operations that followed.

It’s a legacy that continues to divide opinion.

The problem is simple: nuclear power generation and fuel recycling has generated a vast amount of dangerous radioactive waste, much of it potentially deadly.

Some will remain deadly for hundreds of thousands of years to come.

The official figures make for stark reading: there is currently about 480,000 cubic metres of nuclear waste in the UK in need of a permanent home.

That includes 1,400 cubic metres of high level waste; 80,000 cubic metres of uranium; 11,200 cubic metres of spent fuel rods; and 3,300 cubic metres of plutonium.

When packaged for storage, that amount of waste would fill 190 Olympic- sized swimming pools, say experts.

So what can be done with such material?

The suggested solutions have ranged from a naive plan to throw it all down a disused Egremont mine to a visionary – if impractical – proposal to blast it into deep space.

The Government has now settled on the deep underground storage of nuclear waste as the most likely “solution” for generations to come – and west Cumbria is top of the list of likely locations.

That’s because Allerdale, Copeland and Cumbria county councils have all confirmed “expressions of interest” in hosting the so-called underground waste repository.

They are the only areas in the country to have done so.

The issue was debated enthusiastically a public meeting in Whitehaven this week.

It was organised by West Cumbria Managing Radioactive Waste Safely Partnership, an advisory body specifically created to investigate whether the plan should be supported in Cumbria.

One of the key voices was that of Copeland Council leader Elaine Woodburn.

“If it’s not right for west Cumbria, it will not be in west Cumbria,” she told the 200 or so who turned up.

The benefits to the area of providing an underground repository are potentially huge, said Elaine, who stressed that safety and security are key issues.

“Ultimately, it has to be a matter for the community to decide and my personal view is that a referendum might be a way to do that, but there’s a lot of work to be done before we have all the information.

“There were comments that the whole of west Cumbria is not [geologically] stable enough for a repository but that’s not the case.

“But the benefits of having a repository would have to be felt over a very long time – over generations, because the repository would be there for a very long time.”

Cherry Wade, from the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA), told the meeting: “We would not want to proceed unless we were confident that a site was safe.

“For those parts of west Cumbria which are still potentially in consideration for this process the amount of geological information available is highly variable.

“For most of the region insufficient information exists on which to take a decision on the suitability to host a geological disposal facility.

“Even for those areas where more information is available it would be necessary to evaluate it further in the light of the advanced knowledge which has taken place since the early stages and make sure the information and the understanding is up to date.”

Her words gave little reassurance to campaign groups like Greenpeace who regard an underground repository as a gamble with the health of future generations.

Jean McSorley, the charity’s senior nuclear advisor, believes there are too many unanswered questions.

She says: “We have always said that the most environmentally acceptable solution at present is to continue storing the waste above ground, at sites where you have the staff and the technology to continue monitory it.”

The technical challenge of creating a deep repository for waste that will remain dangerous for thousands of years is undeniably huge.

Up to 1,000 metres below ground, they would consist of unimaginably huge caverns, the size of up to 1,400 standard football pitches.

In the 1980s, the waste disposal agency Nirex sank test bore holes near Gosforth as they investigated the site for a possible underground repository, but their plans shattered in 1996 after being ruled out on safety grounds.

Jean adds: “There’s a real lack of knowledge about underground storage.

“Although there are a number of countries pursuing geological disposal, there is no operating facility anywhere in the world for this material. There is no 100 per cent guarantee that everything will work as planned.”

Jean believes that pro-nuclear west Cumbria may be top of the list of likely sites for the repository for political rather than geological reasons.

Even if west Cumbria does eventually support an underground dump, bringing hundreds of jobs, the geology of the area may ultimately prove to be the biggest hurdle.

Jean fears that contaminated water may one day leach from the repository.

“People in the future might not thank us for deciding on their behalf that they might be exposed to levels radiation above what is allowed now. We also know that a repository would be destined to take waste from new reactors, and that’s a crucial issue, and one of the biggest drivers for a solution to disposal.

“We have to deal with the legacy of waste we already have but we believe that a new generation of nuclear power stations is not needed because there are economically sustainable alternatives.”

Dr Ruth Balogh, from the west Cumbria and North Lakes Friends of the Earth, questions the value of this week’s meeting.

She says: “Hosting a repository in this region would mean keeping people and the environment safe from hazardous radioactive waste for hundreds of thousands of years. An issue of this magnitude deserves more than a biased two-hour seminar.”

The debate was revived in December last year when parts of Cumbria were hit by a mini earthquake, its tremors felt up to eight miles below ground.

Martin Forewood, from Cumbrians Opposed to a Radioactive Environment (CORE), said it amounted to “stupidity” to bury high levels of radioactive material underground in areas which can be hit by earthquakes.

But Tim Knowles, chairman of the West Cumbria Managing Radioactive Waste Safely Partnership, said all geological risks, including seismic, would be taken into account in any assessment. He stressed that a decision about a repository in west Cumbria was “many years away.”

Have your say

Another example of humanities greed causing the effect of more poisons .Poison's that are building up in our atmosphere,sea's and land .
If we'd listened to common sense in the first place ,become more energy efficient and pursue green forms of energy production none of this poison would have been produced .
As a nation we should have a referendum on weather we wish to use nuclear power .Then and only then can we decide what to do with the Nuclear waste that has been produced .
The amount of energy we waste as a society is shameful and mostly unthoughtful .Especially since we have the knowledge of the harm all this over consumption is causing to our environment and in time the life's of many.We must install more of the technologies that help to reduce energy consumption and produce far more green energy then we currently do .

This is not about political opinion !this is about the strong scientific evidence,evidence that supports the model that we humans are causing environmental Ecocide .Maybe those of you reading this ,whom believe all these environmental negative decisions thus actions you support, will not ultimately effect you, may have to face a huge wake up call.
As your own personal environment/weather begins to interfere with your "normal" yet destructive lifestyles .
Will you still carry on regardless ? Will your pride prevent you from accepting what you can see with your own eyes.Or will you join us whom wish to care for our Earth , not exploit it .

Posted by Gary on 14 August 2012 at 21:33

I'm sure the good people of Cumbria welcome this golden opportunity to become the UK's premier nuclear disposal facility. Those who express caution and environmental concerns should just focus on the jobs and economic benefits that will be brought to the area.

Posted by Ivor Windscale on 3 July 2011 at 20:40

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Is The Autumn Statement good news for Cumbria?

Yes - the enterprise zone jobs and airport flights are a fantastic boost

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I agree with Jamie Reed, it is all smoke and mirrors

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