Nuclear nightmare for 'village of dreams' village'

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A village's nightmare of having an underground nuclear waste dump "not much more than a throw of a ball" from its cricket pitch was outlined at the opening of a major public inquiry in Cumbria yesterday.

Parish councillor Barry Weston told of how the villagers of Gosforth, many of whom work at British Nuclear Fuels' Sellafield reprocessing plant, mistrusted the company charged with disposing of radioactive waste.

UK Nirex has appealed against a decision by Cumbria County Council to refuse permission for a pounds 195m underground laboratory at Longlands Farm, just outside Gosforth, and only a road's width from the western boundary of the Lake District national park.

The parish was, Mr Weston said, "very much the land of John Major's dreams, where matrons cycled to church, where there is warm beer, village greens and early morning mists".

But he added: "His dream does not develop into our nightmare of having the distinct prospect of an underground nuclear waste dump not much more than a good throw of a ball from the cricket pitch."

Mr Weston said local people feared that the inquiry, which will last at least until Christmas, would be "little more than a whitewashing exercise" - opening the way for Nirex's ultimate aim of a pounds 2bn repository for plutonium- contaminated radioactive waste on the site.

In contrast, Friends of the Earth, one of a number of environmental groups at the inquiry, believes Nirex could fail to provide sufficient scientific justification for the Gosforth site, particularly on the risk of contaminated water one day percolating up to the surface.

Greenpeace asserted that the Government had "colluded" with Nirex to ensure that the basis of key decisions on the preferred site had been shrouded in secrecy.

In an opening statement, Robin Grove-White, a Greenpeace director, said Nirex had been "chased out" of other areas in the country.

However, Mr Grove-White was rebuked by Chris McDonald, the inspector conducting the inquiry, when he claimed the Government had imposed limits on the inquiry to ensure Nirex could press ahead despite "mounting scientific concern" about its methods and results.

"The only party who will impose limits on the scope of this inquiry is the judiciary," Mr McDonald responded - an assertion that offered encouragement for opponents of the project who want the widest possible inquiry.

Nirex is resisting attempts to get it to disclose the location of 12 other sites around Britain investigated as potential dumps.

Lionel Read QC, for Nirex, said the question of whether some other site had sufficient potential was "not relevant" to its application for a Rock Characterisation Facility - the underground laboratory - at Gosforth.

Viewed dispassionately, the case for the RCF was "overwhelming", Mr Read said. But his assertion that building the facility does not commit Nirex to developing a nuclear waste repository at Gosforth is viewed with deep scepticism by other parties to the inquiry.

Costing pounds 124m to build and pounds 71m to operate, the RCF will be, in the words of Cumbria council's QC, Richard Drabble, "akin to a mine" with two shafts of up to 935 metres deep and horizontal galleries.

Mr Drabble stressed the visual impact of the workings from the higher ground of the National Park and the complex geology and hydro-geology of the rock.

"Nirex will face extreme difficulty in making a convincing case" he said.

"We believe that the nature of the Longlands farm site is such that it will continue to cause immense difficulty for the future safety case."

Stephen Hockman QC, for Copeland District Council, said the socio-economic disadvantages of the project were likely to be severe - contrasting the few jobs created with the deterrent to investment and tourism of association with a nuclear dump.

British Nuclear Fuels is by far the biggest employer in an area where jobs are otherwise scarce. Although shedding labour, it has 7,200 employees and considerable community support.

Mr Weston told the inquiry that "no such trust and respect" had been engendered by Nirex.

Much of the mistrust stemmed from its refusal to make transparent the selection process which led to Gosforth being chosen.