Science: Not just any old dump will do - Michael Folger is in charge of designing a repository to hold radioactive waste for thousands of years. Tom Wilkie met him

ON WEDNESDAY the nuclear industry's waste disposal company, UK Nirex, will hold a parliamentary reception to mark the 10th anniversary of its foundation. It will provide MPs with a chance to meet Michael Folger, the company's formidable new managing director. Since he is in charge of designing and excavating a repository to hold Britain's radioactive wastes safely for thousands of years, it is an opportunity they might be wise to use.

In its early years, Nirex was dominated by the engineering ethos traditional to the nuclear industry, in which technology took precedence over pounds, pence and public opinion. But since Mr Folger's appointment in September, this former Treasury mandarin, who went into the City in the mid-Eighties, has been bringing a different attitude to the way Nirex conducts its business.

Until the beginning of June, Nirex had maintained that it would seek planning permission for its deep-underground waste repository later this year. Last week, in a rare interview, Mr Folger said: 'We have not reached a judgement about applying for planning permission.'

In its announcement, Nirex said it would take an extra year to explore the hydrogeology of its preferred site near the Sellafield reprocessing plant in Cumbria. It has drilled several test boreholes but needs information from many more before it can be confident enough to apply for permission to start excavations.

Over the past year, the company had much improved its understanding of the issues, Mr Folger said, but added that 'it's the company's judgement that a well-founded safety case needs more information'.

The safety of the repository will depend on the formation of the rocks in the Borrowdale Volcanic Group, which begins more than 400m below the surface. Nirex may now consider sinking a narrow vertical shaft and putting out a horizontal gallery to 'characterise' the rock formation (ie, analyse it to check that there are no unforeseen faults or fractures at the repository's depth of 800m). This could be done cheaply and in advance of the main excavation.

The gallery could eventually become part of the repository itself, and the vertical shaft could be one of two ventilation shafts in Nirex's design that would also serve as emergency escape routes.

However, with the scrupulous precision of a senior civil servant setting out all the options for ministers, Mr Folger pointed out that characterisation of the rock could also be done while sinking the main access tunnels to be used for sending loads of waste material down into the storage chambers. Nirex might even make a start on the access tunnels at the same time as it begins the exploratory shaft. 'The order in which you tackle things is something that's for decision,' he said.

Suddenly, it appears there are lots of decisions that Nirex ought to have taken if it had been keeping to its original timetable but which are not yet settled. The 12-month delay may prove a useful breathing space for the company, not just to do more on-site research but to formulate clearly the case it will have to put before a public inquiry.

None of this, of course, can be deduced directly from Mr Folger; it has to be read between the lines. Here, one feels, is a man who weighs his choice of syllables, not just words. During our interview, he picked me up on using 'forcibly' when I meant 'forcefully' and demurred at my description of Sellafield as Nirex's 'preferred' site.

Sellafield is, he said, 'the site at which, we have announced, we are concentrating further geological investigations'. A pause, and then: 'Compared to the other site we're evaluating (Dounreay, near Thurso, in the north of Scotland), at this stage the distinguishing factor is that the bulk of the wastes arise at Sellafield, and in terms of transport and its cost Sellafield is preferred in that sense.'

Nirex has appeared to be obsessed with keeping to the tightest of timetables, despite external criticism that its schedule was unrealistic, but Mr Folger gives the appearance of a man determined to get things done right rather than in a hurry.

The original deadline was to have the repository start receiving wastes by 2005. But we are a long way from that operating date, he remarked - 'at best we are approaching the end of the beginning'. While the company was still characterising the site and completing the conceptual design, there was a lot of detailed engineering work to be completed. 'People sometimes speak as if we were going to turn the key and set it in operation within the next four to five years. We're not.'

He conceded that the extra year's investigations at Sellafield would probably entail a year's delay in starting operations, though the company was looking to see if it could claw some of the time back. But he said: 'I do not sense that I am under pressure to cut corners to meet some overriding target date.'

One of the great unresolved issues is that of costs, in particular how much the Ministry of Defence is willing to pay to have its radioactive waste disposed of in Nirex's repository. Mr Folger has an acute understanding that although his shareholders - Nuclear Electric, British Nuclear Fuels, the UK Atomic Energy Authority and Scottish Nuclear - are state owned, they now have to compete in the marketplace. As a result, 'we are seized of the need to be proceeding cost effectively'.

But the MoD is not represented on Nirex's board, although it will be as significant a user of the repository as Nirex's smaller shareholders. The Government is represented by a single 'golden share' held by the energy minister, not the MoD.

Nirex will be having discussions with the MoD about the basis of its participation and Mr Folger believes it could make sense for the MoD 'to come in at the front end' of the financing. While he would not be drawn on specifics, he pointed out that it might be possible to come to an understanding with the MoD about its rate of usage, which would make it easier for Nirex to finance the construction of the repository. The company estimates the capital cost of excavating the hole at pounds 1bn to pounds 1.25bn, while the total cost of excavating and operating for 50 years is pounds 3bn.

Mr Folger concluded by stressing how proud he and the Nirex team were of the job they were doing. He reiterated that matters were still at a comparatively early stage and that a lot of work still had to be done on the design, the order in which work would progress and, in parallel with technical matters, the way in which the project would be financed.

'The fact that we need to be cautious and maintain respect for scientific integrity all the way along means that we have to acknowledge that at this stage not every last detail of the safety case is nailed down,' he said. But the ultimate reason why Nirex is looking to put this material away is human health, he continued. 'We do believe that we are digging for a safe future'.

(Photograph and map omitted)