Inquiry may expose secret nuclear dumps

Protesters could force Nirex to bring plans into the open. Tom Wilkie reports
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A top-secret list of the 12 sites around Britain considered suitable for dumping nuclear waste may be forced into the open during a major public inquiry which starts today.

The inquiry, which is being held at Cleator Moor Civic Hall in west Cumbria, will examine plans by the nuclear industry's waste disposal company, UK Nirex, to build a pounds 2bn repository for plutonium-contaminated radioactive waste deep underground on the borders of the Lake District National Park.

The inquiry will investigate the first stage of the project, the construction of a pounds 195m underground laboratory at Longlands farm just two miles from British Nuclear Fuel's Sellafield reprocessing plant, which produces most of the waste that will go into the repository.

But even before the inquiry has started, a local conservation group, Friends of the Lake District, has lodged a complaint with the European Commission that Nirex's Environmental Impact Assessment breaches EU regulations. The action means that objectors could have the option of appealing for a judicial review of the inquiry's findings in the European courts - a process that could delay the project for up to two years.

Nirex hopes to complete its repository by 2010 and it would then take waste for the next 50 years, at an annual cost of between pounds 10m and pounds 20m. But the plans have sparked opposition from a wide group of individuals and organisations, including the local planning authority, Cumbria County Council, and environmental lobby groups such as Friends of the Earth.

The council maintains that such a development on the edge of a national park can be justified only if there is a clear national need for the facility and if it is demonstrated that the repository could not be better placed elsewhere.

Nirex intends to build the repository in two stages. To begin with, it will excavate an underground laboratory below Longlands Farm, just over half a mile from the village of Gosforth. Over a period of about four years, Nirex would sink two shafts to depths of 920 metres and 790 metres and then construct horizontal galleries at 735 metres or deeper.

Costing pounds 124m to build and pounds 71m to operate, this Rock Characterisation Facility would spend 10 years testing the properties of the rocks and check that they are suitable for taking nuclear waste which will have to be isolated from the surface environment for thousands of years. If the underground research confirms the company's belief that the rocks under Longlands farm are suitable, then Nirex will proceed to build the entire repository.

Both the Government and UK Nirex have strenuously maintained the public inquiry should be strictly limited to examining local amenity planning matters arising from the Research Facility alone.

The Government has refused repeated requests from the inspector, Chris McDonald, to pay for an official transcript of the proceedings. Nirex will be making a record of what is said but is keeping that secret and has refused to make it available to anyone else. Last week, a lobby group, the Anti-Dump Network, announced that it had found enough money to pay for making a transcript.

Nirex says the Research Facility is a scientific project and not a nuclear facility and so has been resisting calls to present an interim assessment of the safety of the repository and is refusing to release information on its assessment of other sites.

But the signs are that the inspector believes safety and site selection are relevant. Following a request from Cumbria County Council, he has written to HM Inspectorate of Pollution - which will be responsible for the safety of the final repository - asking it to present evidence. The action taken by Friends of the Lake District also makes it almost inevitable that Nirex will have to explain in detail how it came to reject other sites in favour of Sellafield.

Ian Brodie, the group's secretary, stressed: "We are not a pro or anti- nuclear group. Our main case is the landscape damage." He said the industrial buildings over the pit heads would be tall and represent considerable visual intrusion.