Britain has just joined the club of nuclear nations with no coherent plan for nuclear waste disposal, despite two decades of debate and the spending of hundreds of millions of pounds. It is a case study in government avoidance of hard choicesby Tom Wilkie / May 20, 1997 / Leave a comment
Michael Folger, the chief executive of the nuclear industry’s waste disposal company, UK Nirex, is a man of strong Christian faith. But this Easter, rather than the story of Christ’s Passion, his mind may have been dwelling more on the Psalms. In particular, the warning of psalm 146: “Put not your trust in princes.”
If there is one industry to which the government owes a debt of gratitude, it is nuclear power. It was nuclear power stations that kept the lights on during the miners’ strike. Yet Margaret Thatcher and her successors turned against it. On 17th March, the day John Major announced the general election, the government announced the latest stage in its long retreat from the dream of cheap and plentiful civil nuclear power. In blunt language, John Gummer, the secretary of state for the environment, rubbished Folger’s plans for the disposal of nuclear waste. Gummer referred to “the poor design” of the project and expressed his concern “about the scientific uncertainties and technical deficiencies in the proposals presented by Nirex.”
In June 1994 UK Nirex had applied for planning permission to excavate a laboratory near the Sellafield reprocessing plant in West Cumbria, to analyse the suitability of the rocks for Britain’s first deep waste repository. In December Cumbria County Council rejected the planning application, although the laboratory was just the first stage in the process. Nirex appealed and thus triggered a public inquiry, from September 1995 to February 1996. The inquiry ruled against the laboratory project and on 17th March, Gummer endorsed its decision.
no waste strategy, no industry
Britain has thus joined a large club of nuclear nations which has failed to solve the problems of radioactive waste disposal. Germany has a strategy but, as the mass demonstrations at Gorleben showed at the beginning of March, it has not won public assent. In the US, spent nuclear fuel is piling up at some power stations in transport casks which have been adapted for use as temporary storage, while political horsetrading will decide the fate of the proposed repository site at Yucca mountain in Nevada. After several false starts, France seems to be getting it right; surprisingly for a country with a reputation for centralism, extensive local consultations are being undertaken with a view to securing consent. Perhaps Sweden has the most advanced strategy with longterm stores and one disposal already operating. But the Swedes voted…