Radioactive waste dump 'justified by new jobs'

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Construction workers yesterday demanded their "God-given right to work" as they and nuclear industry shop stewards took on environmentalists at the long- running public inquiry into plans for an underground radioactive waste dump in west Cumbria.

Gerry Cole, chairman of the Cumbrian Construction Workers, had to be reminded of the libel laws by the inquiry chairman Chris McDonald as he heaped insults on Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace and other groups which he said wanted to prevent people from "honest, fulfilling work".

The inquiry, which began at Cleator Moor Civic Hall six weeks ago, is into UK Nirex's plan for a pounds 195m rock laboratory at Gosforth on the edge of the Lake District National Park. Nirex wants to prove the scientific case for a pounds 2.5bn deep repository to take waste from British Nuclear Fuel's Sellafield reprocessing plant, two miles from the site.

The Government is anxious to settle the issue of waste management - which is jeopardising its plans to sell off the nuclear power industry and raise up to pounds 3bn for pre-election tax cuts. But uncertainty could force down the price.

Faced with a formidable line-up of experts appearing for Greenpeace, FoE and Cumbria County Council, which turned down the Rock Characterisation Facility (RCF) application, Nirex has added to its own cast of scientific witnesses. Originally expected to end around Christmas, the inquiry is now set to run until the end of January.

Mr McDonald, the Department of the Environment inspector conducting the inquiry, disappointed Nirex by asking the independent Pollution Inspectorate to give evidence next week. He added to the company's woes by indicating his report would be delayed. The issue must then be decided by John Gummer, Secretary of State for the Environment. A further uncertainty has been added with the disclosure that the European Commission has opened an official complaint file on the quality of the Nirex "environmental statement".

Cumbrian Friends of the Earth groups said the area had already been damaged by its dependence on Sellafield and the nuclear industry. Speaking on behalf of four local FoE groups, Jill Perry said Sellafield had been chosen, against other sites, which Nirex will not name, on the basis of cost, convenience and an amenable local population. She argued that the Borrowdale volcanic rock in which the radioactive waste will be sealed was "inherently fractured" and close to recently active geological faults.

However, Mrs Perry and representatives of other anti-nuclear groups were attacked by Mr Cole as "professional agitators and protesters". Describing himself as "just a hairy-arsed old construction worker" who wanted to see his men in work, Mr Cole said 2,000 jobs were at stake. In this he included not just the men digging the two 935m-deep shafts but "the taxi driver who is going to take the lads back to the camp when they're pissed up".

The underground laboratory was also supported by the Windscale and Calder Shop Stewards Committee representing 4,800 employees at BNFL Sellafield. It complained of "political forces" whose objective was to prevent a solution to the nuclear waste problem being found.