Underground radioactive waste disposal comes closer

Plans to make it easier to dispose of radioactive waste underground took another step forward yesterday afternoon (25th February 2015).

The government wants to classify geological disposal facilities for radioactive waste as “nationally-significant infrastructure projects” under planning rules.

If approved, this would mean that proposed facilities would not go through the normal planning system and the final decision would be by the Secretary of State, not a local authority.

The issue is contained in the statutory instrument, Infrastructure planning (radioactive waste geological disposal facilities) order 2015, considered yesterday by a committee of the House of Lords. The order covers the geological disposal facility itself, as well as deep boreholes that would be drilled to assess potential sites.

Some campaign groups are concerned that the measure would allow abandoned deep oil and gas boreholes to be used to store radioactive and fracking waste, without the approval or involvement of local communities. No Nuke Dumping said the issue deserved more attention and should be voted on by the whole House of Lords.

More than 35% of responses to a public consultation in late 2013 disagreed with the proposals, about 16% were neutral or unclear, 19% partly agreed and 30% agreed.

During yesterday’s discussions, which lasted 75 minutes, three peers called for the order to be withdrawn. There was no vote. The order has to be approved by both the House of Lords and Commons before it becomes law.

Link to briefing note on the order and full Hansard transcript

Petition urging peers to reject the order

Extracts from the committee
Baroness Verma, Energy Minister
Making this legislative change will help us to implement geological disposal, an action vital for both for our energy past and energy future.”

Geological disposal is recognised across the world, and by our own independent Committee on Radioactive Waste Management, as being the best available approach for the long-term management of higher-activity radioactive waste. A geological disposal facility, or GDF, is a highly engineered facility capable of isolating radioactive waste within multiple protective barriers, deep underground, so that no harmful quantities of radioactivity ever reach the surface.

The Government continue to favour an approach to siting a GDF that is based on local communities’ willingness to participate in the process.

The final decision to apply for development consent and regulatory approvals for a GDF will not be taken until, and unless, there is a positive test of public support for hosting a GDF at the site in question.”

Lord Liddle, Lab, (also a member of Cumbria County Council)
I do not believe it is right that the Government should be able to impose what we all colloquially refer to as a nuclear dump on Cumbria, regardless of the views of the whole Cumbria community and its county council, which is essentially what the Government are trying to do.

As a democrat and a Cumbria citizen, I just cannot support the current proposal that the final decision is taken out of the hands of anyone in Cumbria and left to the Secretary of State.”

I believe that it is wrong for us to endorse an order that basically gives the Secretary of State the power to do what he wants and ride roughshod over the elected, democratic representatives of the county. That is why I would like to see this order withdrawn.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer, Lib Dem
Something as important as this is not only about burying waste in the ground. Bear in mind that it is also about the transport of waste to that facility, which will have an enormous impact.

For all those reasons, I should like the Minister to assure us, for a start, that it complies with the Aarhus convention and, secondly, to consider whether the exceptional nature of GDFs should make them inapplicable to the process envisaged by the 2008 Act.

Lord Judd, Lab, (Cumbrian, patron of Friends of the Lake District, vice president of the Campaign for National Parks)
As I understand it, the Government have been insistent that they favour localism—and very much on any project of this kind, because the involvement and approval of the local community has repeatedly been stated as essential. Yet the whole idea of strategic projects of this kind is to cut back and streamline what has been there traditionally and was very hard won: the possibility for local communities to pursue the things that disturb them and their consequences.

I would like specific assurance from the Minister that at the outset of any such project it will be considered essential to undertake a transparent and convincing national survey to establish the best, most favourable and least dangerous place in which to develop it. When that has been established, then, of course, local involvement becomes crucial.

Many geologists of great distinction are already saying, and have done for some time, that Cumbria is not the place to have a project of this kind because of the situation with subterranean water. There is a feeling that these scientists of distinction have never been given the hearing on the project that they should have had. Some have made their work available at their own expense as they feel so concerned about it and have put it on public record.

Lord Inglewood, Con, (Cumbrian)
If you write local authorities out of the process in the manner that has been described, how do you at the same time ensure that that will not take place in Cumbria without local support? Will the Minister spell out to us exactly how that local support will be measured and dealt with—and at what point in the process.

Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb, Green
There are concerns that have to be answered and the relative risks and dangers, as the noble Lord, Lord Judd, said, have perhaps not been assessed as stringently as they might have been. For example, copper and steel canisters and overpack containing spent nuclear fuel or high-level radioactive waste could corrode more quickly than expected; we do not know. The effects of intense heat generated by radioactive decay and the chemical and physical disturbance due to corrosion, gas generation and biomineralisation could impair the ability of backfill material to trap some radionuclides.

The build-up of gas pressure in the repository, as a result of the corrosion of metals and/or the degradation of organic material, could damage the barriers and force fast routes out through crystalline rock fractures or clay rock pores. There are also poorly understood chemical effects, such as the formation of colloids, which could speed up some of the more radiotoxic elements such as plutonium. Unidentified fractures and faults, or a poor understanding of how water and gas might flow through the ground, could lead to the release of toxic materials into groundwater. These are concerns that cannot be ignored, and the order needs a little more research about whether this is an activity that can be supported with a view to complete public safety. I would argue that it is not, but I look forward to the Minister reassuring us.

Lord Teverson Lib Dem
The exploratory deep borehole investigations seem to be a measure on a completely different scale, so I do not understand the logic of having both of those in. The exploration side seems logically to fit far more within the standard local authority planning system. I would be interested to hear a comment from my noble friend about why both these scales of project have been put into this order, rather than just one or the other.

Baroness Worthington, shadow Energy Minister, Lab
There has been widespread support for continued use of nuclear power and acceptance that much of the waste derives from legacy projects that have accrued since the 1940s and 1950s. It is high time that we came up with a solution for the long-term storage of high-level nuclear waste. Personally, I support the logic behind the order

As we now embark on a new era of nuclear build, it is probably high time for a discussion about the risks from radiation relative to other sources of hazardous waste, which we deal with, manage and store in different ways. Radiation seems to have a particular resonance in the public mind, some of which is justified and some of which is not. It is high time that we had a basic and scientifically grounded discussion about the nature of radiation.

Baroness Verma
Those communities that will ultimately be involved must be assured that they have the final say.

At this time, no community has been identified. No site has been identified and we must not pre-empt, or be premature in, the assumption that it will be Cumbria. I also made it clear that, from looking at the last process, the debate needed to go much wider and further. Communities needed better information to come forward. That is why I continue to push back when people say, “This is ultimately going to be in Cumbria”. We do not know at this stage. We have two years in which people will be involved and able to be better informed.

The final decision to apply for the development consent will not be taken until—and, as I think I reiterated in my opening remarks, unless—there is a positive test of public support for the GDF site in question.

If we cannot satisfy ourselves and the independent regulators that a GDF is safe then it will not be built. We would need to be reassured that the standards of the stringent international and national regulations were met before we would even endeavour to construct and operate a GDF.

The Committee is simply being asked to consider the order, not to approve it. The Motion to approve will be tabled in the Chamber and noble Lords can oppose it then if they are strongly opposed to it. However, I suggest that if we are to make progress in finding a long-term solution to this significant national programme, we need to ensure that we provide the public with facts and not just bear in on myths that have been peddled over many years.

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