Between a rock and a hard case

SCIENCE; Should we bury nuclear waste? Stephen Goodwin and Tom Wilkie sift evidence to the Nirex inquiry
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The Independent Online
After five months and the expenditure of more than pounds 10m, life returns to whatever passes for normal this week for a group of scientists, green activists, lawyers, and public servants following the end of a public inquiry into the key stage of a pounds 2bn nuclear waste dump.

UK Nirex, the state-owned nuclear waste company, itself spent almost pounds 10m on presenting its case, with a team of 44 staff working in a suite of offices refurbished at a cost of pounds 100,000, in an old mill building opposite the draughty civic hall in Cleator Moor, west Cumbria.

The inquiry was ordered when Cumbria County Council refused Nirex's application to build the underground laboratory, known as a Rock Characterisation Facility (RCF), at Longlands Farm, near Gosforth on the western fringe of the Lake District National Park. Two shafts would be sunk - the deepest to 920 metres - and galleries excavated to test the suitability of the Borrowdale volcanic rock for storing radioactive material for 100,000 years.

Environment campaigners believe they have shown Nirex's scientific case for pressing ahead with a rock laboratory on the edge of the Irish Sea to be "fundamentally flawed". The Dublin government made an unprecedented appearance at the inquiry to issue a thinly-veiled threat to oppose the project in the European Court of Justice. And even a local community with thousands of jobs tied up in the nuclear industry made plain their distrust of the waste company.

Nirex hopes the pounds 195m laboratory would confirm its assertion that the site holds "good promise" for a repository to take the waste from British Nuclear Fuel's Sellafield reprocessing plant, only two miles away. Waste equivalent to a football pitch 40ft deep is now stored above ground, two- thirds of it at Sellafield.

But Guy Richardson, Cumbria's head of planning, says Nirex had chosen Sellafield primarily because of its proximity and because the company feared local opposition if it tried to bury the waste in areas of Britain unfamiliar with the nuclear industry. Nirex would not reveal the other 11 sites on its shortlist, but it was confidently asserted around the inquiry that a more geologically simple one was in East Anglia.

"We know that the geology and hydrogeology at the Sellafield site is so complex and unpredictable that even if an RCF were to proceed it will be extremely difficult to make a robust safety case," Mr Richardson says.

Friends of the Earth maintains that its seven expert witnesses inflicted a "scientific defeat" on Nirex, despite a claim by the company that it would pull them apart in cross-examination.

FoE asserts that to go underground now would be premature, and that another five to 10 years of investigation needs to be done through bore holes and other surface work. The shafts to the RCF will disturb the natural patterns of ground water movement - and ground water is a crucial aspect if safety is to be assured. The risk is that underground water might dissolve radioactive elements out of the buried waste and carry them back to the surface to contaminate drinking water. A complete baseline picture of the undisturbed rock needs to be obtained, according to FoE.

Dr Patrick Green, FoE's senior nuclear campaigner, says: "It is right on the cutting edge of science, so what is an extra 20 years of research on a timetable of 100,000 years?"

But Michael Folger, Nirex's chief executive, calculates delay in terms of the pounds 33m in interest payments for each extra year - charges on its loans from BNFL and nuclear industry shareholders. The inquiry has already put its timetable back 18 months. The earliest waste could start going underground in 2012.

Mr Folger emphasises that the RCF is a research facility. "The granting of planning permission ... would not commit us to developing a repository at Sellafield. If underground research shows that the site would not be suitable, Nirex would walk away." The company has already spent pounds 400m at Sellafield.

The inquiry sat for 66 days, and heard 73 witnesses, 18 of them appearing for Nirex. More than 1,000 documents were submitted, plus 2,585 written representations. Chris McDonald, the planning inspector who conducted the inquiry, is expected to hand his report and recommendations to the Secretary of State, John Gummer, around the end of October. Nirex's working assumption is that Mr Gummer will deliver his verdict in spring 1997.