Critical report into nuclear dump cut short

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The Independent Online

Science Editor

The nuclear industry has stopped the Government's pollution inspectorate from assessing the long-term safety of the proposed underground waste repository near Sellafield, in Cumbria.

The Independent on Sunday revealed exclusively yesterday that one assessment from HM Inspectorate of Pollution concluded that plutonium from the repository could heavily contaminate local drinking water, possibly exposing people to radiation doses 10,000 times the current limit. But the work was "prematurely ended" in September last year when funding was withdrawn.

A second HMIP report, on the movement of underground water from the repository back to the surface, casts further doubt on the robustness of Nirex's case for the safety of its proposed nuclear waste repository. Such movement is critical to safety because it may carry radioactive materials back to the surface to contaminate water supplies.

Tom Curtin, a Nirex spokesman, said: "All our indications show that the water is going to come up out under the Irish Sea" where any radioactivity would be heavily diluted. However, computer modelling on behalf of HMIP "showed a plume of activity reaching the surface almost directly above the repository," according to the report prepared by RM Consultants.

In July, Nirex published a scientific report "stressing that the overall concept of the groundwater flow at the site is essentially a simple and natural one". Yet HMIP's consultants warn that scientists may not be able to analyse the safety of the repository because the situation is too complex.

Although the research raises disturbing questions about the long-term safety of a repository it has been cut short. Under the Government's "the polluter pays" principle, the Treasury had refused to fund the required pounds 1.34m and insisted that HMIP recover the costs of independently assessing Nirex's safety case from Nirex. In 1991, Nirex agreed to pay for the assessment work but in September last year it terminated the deal - even though some of the assessments were not complete.

Mr Curtin said: "Cost recovery effectively comes into play when you make an application to discharge waste to a repository. At the moment we are applying for an investigatory facility, not to dispose of waste, so to say we 'pulled out' of the cost recovery agreement is totally the wrong word."

This week the public inquiry into Nirex's proposals enters its second stage. Nirex wants to excavate a laboratory deep underground on the site of the repository to study the properties of the rocks, before moving on to the repository itself.

Objectors to the project argue that the underground laboratory is premature. Going underground will inevitably disturb the patterns of groundwater flow, and without extensively monitoring the existing undisturbed patterns, the excavation of the laboratory "could fundamentally compromise the safety case for the repository", according to Patrick Green, of Friends of the Earth. "Our witnesses believe that there is five to seven years additional work to be done on the surface before you have established baseline conditions," he added.