Cost of underground storage questioned

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The Independent Online
LONG-STANDING plans to dispose of Britain's nuclear waste deep underground are now being questioned by the Treasury on grounds of cost, writes Tom Wilkie.

Officials are arguing that it would be better simply to build secure long-term stores on the surface at nuclear sites, rather than the huge repository underneath Sellafield in Cumbria which had been planned by UK Nirex, the industry's waste disposal company.

The confidential review has been prompted by the realisation that nuclear waste policy will be a feature of a public inquiry next year.

Treasury officials woke up to the increasing costs of handling nuclear waste when UK Nirex last year abandoned its plans for the underground repository. Instead, it decided it would first have to build an underground laboratory to assess the suitability of the rocks. It expects to submit a planning application for its 'rock characterisation facility' early next year.

Cumbria Country Council, the local planning authority, believes that the project should be publicly examined, so the application will almost certainly be 'called in' by the Secretary of State for the Environment for a public inquiry. But it would be difficult to limit the inquiry's scope simply to the underground laboratory because, if the results were suitable, Nirex would want to excavate its repository there. Thus the Government's policy on nuclear waste disposal would have to be defended in public.

Nirex has set itself an internal planning target date for commissioning its repository of 2006/

2007, but concedes that there are so many uncertainties, many beyond its control, that it is not announcing a firm date. Other observers have suggested that the repository may not be operational before 2015.

The delays mean that more interim on-site stores will have to be built. The Treasury is now asking whether existing policy is giving value for money. Since Nirex's work will have no pay- off for at least 15 years, the Treasury argues that it might be better to build secure long-term stores on the surface at nuclear sites. Existing policy is in any case to store the most radioactive wastes on the surface for at least 50 years before trying to dispose of them.