Inquiry fails to settle row over nuclear lab

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The Independent Online

The marathon inquiry into plans to build a rock laboratory beneath west Cumbria, in the hope of proving the site safe for a nuclear-waste dump, ended yesterday with the battle lines little changed.

UK Nirex, the state-owned nuclear-waste company, maintains it was time to "go underground", while Friends of the Earth said another 5 to 10 years of surface investigation needed to be done before such a scheme was undertaken.

Observers at the 66-day inquiry in Cleator Moor civic hall were impressed by the weight of scientific evidence produced on behalf of the FoE and Greenpeace on the geological uncertainties of the site, but they remain unsure how that will affect the outcome.

The inquiry was ordered after Cumbria County Council turned down Nirex's plan to sink a pounds 195m laboratory near Gosforth village, on the edge of the Lake District National Park. Some pounds 400m has already been spent on preliminary work.

Nirex believes the site holds "good promise" for a repository, costing another pounds 1.2bn, for radioactive waste produced at British Nuclear Fuels' Sellafield reprocessing plant, two miles away. In the most optimistic scenario, from Nirex's point of view, the earliest date a repository could be in operation is 2012. But each year of delay costs the company pounds 33m in interest charges. Nirex concedes there are geologically safer sites in Britain but emphatically rejects objectors' claims that after spending some pounds 600m on the Sellafield site it would be locked in to building the dump there.

"We would walk away if the underground research showed the site would not be suitable," Michael Folger, Nirex's chief executive, insisted, adding that the industry regulator had already made clear that the amount of money spent could not justify a poor safety case.

Much of the argument has centred on site selection. Lionel Read QC, summing up for Nirex yesterday, repeated the company's contention that the existence of other potential sites was not material to the inquiry, but none the less went to great lengths to defend the selection process.

There are believed to be less geologically complex sites in East Anglia but the choice of anywhere outside west Cumbria would mean transporting the radioactive waste.

"The transport advantage is a real safety advantage, occurring here and now," Mr Folger told the Independent. "A different site would mean a bigger transport risk ... "

Nirex spent almost pounds 10m putting its case; the next biggest cost, pounds 500,000, fell on the county council, which had to foot the bill for the inquiry as well as presenting its own case. The FoE spent pounds 100,000.