STATE YOUR CASE — The latest idea for disposing of nuclear waste is to offer councils financial incentives to bury it in their backyard. But, says Nigel Robson, the progress is measured in decades

The government always had a difficult path to tread with nuclear waste. For decades, everybody has known that the only answer is for it to be buried. The real question is, where?

The last thing the government wants to do is to inflame opposition to nuclear power by selecting or imposing sites for repositories when the debate on nuclear build and the associated planning/licensing processes is about to get under way. The government has already stated that anyone bidding to build a nuclear power station must include the cost of decommissioning the facility and disposal of the associated nuclear waste.

Without decisions on disposal, there is no way that the market can cost a nuclear power station. A previous attempt in the 1980s to site a repository on the east coast was withdrawn because of local opposition, and, more recently, in the late 1990s, an application at Sellafield for an underground laboratory was rejected.

The report by the Committee on Radioactive Waste Management (CoRWM) included a suggestion that local councils should “volunteer” to accept a repository. This has been accepted by the government with alacrity and, in rugby parlance, is a sidestep worthy of the All Blacks.

The report by the Committee on Radioactive Waste Management
includes a suggestion that councils should ‘volunteer’
to accept a repository

In fact, the government has simply drawn upon similar schemes in Europe and the rest of the world, where municipal authorities have embraced potentially controversial schemes largely because of the investment, employment and economic benefits they would bring to their municipalities. Both Sweden and Finland adopted this approach.

So, the government now has some breathing space but, as in all of these situations, the legal hurdles are formidable. The white paper following the energy review in July, which must address the streamlining of planning procedures and licensing processes, is now delayed until possibly the middle of next year.

Why? Because there is a difficult balance to be struck between avoiding prolonged public inquiries and licensing procedures, against not to be seen to be railroading through controversial decisions. The most potent weapon, now regularly deployed by protesters and objectors, is to resort to legal proceedings by applying to the courts for a judicial review.

Not only has this been successful in the UK by delaying operational start-ups but, in the USA, one operating licence was never granted after the plant was completed and that plant never came into service.

The timescales for a repository are forbidding. There will need to be at least two planning inquiries, licensing and a
host of regulations

The timescales for a repository are forbidding. There would need to be at least two planning inquiries – one to carry out the initial investigatory work, and the second to consider the detailed proposals. Regardless of how enthusiastic a council may be, the local council tax payers will have to have deep pockets to participate.

CoRWM estimates that the period for preparation, the inquiry itself, and the decision, would be three years. Previous experience suggests it could be longer. Environmental impact assessments present a formidable hurdle for any large project but, in the case of a nuclear repository, one can foresee that any such application would have to satisfy in excess of 30 environmental statutory and regulatory obligations.

Any such site would also be subject to site licensing requirements under the Nuclear Installations Act by the Health and Safety Executive and Nuclear Installations Inspectorate. An extremely detailed examination of the design and the site would be carried out before granting a licence. This in turn would take several years. Over and above this, there would be a host of nuclear-specific statutory and regulatory requirements to be considered and met, as well as EU and other international convention standards.

So is it time for the construction industry to get excited? I think not. The best estimates of the commencement of construction is around 2040, with completion about 2045.