Gummer buries atomic waste disposal plan

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Britain's nuclear-waste disposal plans were thrown into confusion last night after John Gummer, the Secretary of State for the Environment, rejected plans for an underground test laboratory near Sellafield which would have paved the way for a subterranean radioactive dump on the same site.

His surprise decision, the first time the industry has lost a major public- planning battle, delighted environmental groups and local protesters in Cumbria. But it also put a question mark over the policy of building a pounds 2.5bn, 3,000ft-deep system of caverns for nuclear waste.

Nirex, the waste-disposal company owned by the nation's nuclear industry, has spent more than pounds 400m, and many years, working up plans for the laboratory to study disposal of intermediate-level nuclear waste at Gosforth in Cumbria.

Now it may have to spend years gathering more scientific data to prove the safety of its plans, while redrawing plans to reduce the impact the laboratory would have on the Lake District National Park.

Alternatively, it will have to start planning a laboratory and dump at another site and encounter fresh opposition. Its second choice is at another nuclear site, Dounreay in Caithness, Scotland. But the company also has a secret list of 12 other sites where the rocks may be suitable for a deep-level dump.

For more than 20 years successive governments and the nuclear industry have been trying to find a publicly acceptable way of disposing of intermediate- level radioactive wastes, which remain highly dangerous for tens of thousands of years.

A volume of intermediate-level waste equivalent in size to a block of flats has built up from Britain's nuclear power and defences and is stored on the surface, mostly at BNFL's Sellafield site. Five times as much again will arise over the next half century.

Mr Gummer's decision follows a lengthy public inquiry which ended a year ago. Yesterday, Nirex said: ``We're obviously very disappointed.''

Mr Gummer said that the poor design, poor layout and access arrangements on the surface and damage to the national park were reasons enough to reject Nirex's plans, along with the fact that the work would harm a nearby group of badgers. But he added: ``I remain concerned about the scientific uncertainties and technical deficiencies in the proposals presented by Nirex which would also justify refusal of this appeal.'' He also had doubts about the process by which Nirex had chosen the site.

Friends of the Earth hailed ``an historic victory'' and said it wanted plans for an underground dump to be dropped for several decades, with the waste stored and monitored on the surface while technology develops.

Michael Meacher, Labour's environmental protection spokesman, said the policy of deep-level disposal still ``seems to make sense''. But Mr Gummer's rejection of the laboratory was inevitable, he added, following the revelation in a leaked memo that Nirex was itself divided on whether it had gathered enough scientific data to show how water would flow through the rocks around the laboratory and the subsequent dump. ``It's a very serious setback towards a long-term solution,'' he said.

Nirex's planning application was refused by Cumbria County Council and opposed by other local councils, triggering the planning inquiry. The laboratory was also opposed by the Irish government, which said it would take international court action if Nirex was allowed to go ahead.

Martin Forwood, of the campaign group Cumbrians Opposed to a Nuclear Environment, said: ``My advice to other local residents facing this problem in the future would be: `Fight them every inch of the way'.'' Dick Wright, of the Gosforth Action Group, added that Nirex should "pack their bags and walk away from Sellafield''.