Inquiry into nuclear dump counts cost of Irish delay

Stephen Goodwin reports on the mounting bills from hearing into Nirex's plans to bury waste in Cumbria
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The Independent Online
A change of tactics by the Irish government has put further pressure on the long-running inquiry into plans for a nuclear waste dump beneath west Cumbria and almost certainly added to the multi-million pound bill for the taxpayer.

The inquiry, now in its 13th week, was expected to end by Christmas but could well run into February. If each day spent hearing evidence in the civic hall at Cleator Moor is taken as a day of delay in disposing of the nuclear industry's waste, then the inquiry is costing pounds 150,000 a day, virtually all of it extracted from the public purse.

Radioactive waste sufficient to cover a football pitch 40ft deep is at present stored above ground, two-thirds of it at British Nuclear Fuel's Sellafield reprocessing plant, two miles from the dump site.

The inquiry was ordered after Cumbria County Council refused an application by UK Nirex to build an underground laboratory near Gosforth on the edge of the Lake District national park. So far the delay has set back Nirex's timetable by 18 months at a cost of some pounds 50m in interest on loans. The earliest waste from Sellafield could go into the repository is 2012.

Meeting the latest target date assumes Nirex is successful in its inquiry appeal to build the laboratory (Rock Characterisation Facility), the results show the rock is safe, and it then gets permission for the full repository - an issue which will inevitably spark another big inquiry. Uncertainty over waste disposal has put a dampener on the Government's hopes of raising pounds 3bn by privatising most of the nuclear power industry.

Nirex's costs account for by far the largest portion. It is reckoned to have spent up to pounds 10m so far on the inquiry - from a top legal team to a dozen support staff. Some pounds 100,000 has been spent refurbishing an old mill as a modern office with 40 people working there on the Nirex case. When the inquiries are over the building will revert to the community.

Cumbria County Council estimates the cost to its charge payers at about pounds 500,000. The council has one QC but also has to pick up the inquiry's day-to-day running costs.

Copeland Borough Council has netted some pounds 20,000 from its lease of the hall and officesto third parties such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth. Ironically, Copeland objects to Nirex's plans.

All the parties suspect they will be in the civic hall longer as a result of a change of plan by the Irish government, which was due to give evidence last week. It appears the Irish have decided to upgrade their case and take on a Queen's Counsel. They are now expected to give evidence in the New Year.

Dublin has consistently opposed the expansion of nuclear facilities at Sellafield, regarding it has "part of an inexorable and increasing threat to public health, the environment and vital interests such as fishing, agriculture and tourism".

By February the inquiry will have sat for 64 days - well off the 100 days for the Thorp reprocessing plant at Sellafield and 340 days on the Sizewell B nuclear power station.