Nirex speeds up plan for underground laboratory

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The Independent Online
THE NUCLEAR industry's waste-disposal company, UK Nirex, intends to accelerate underground research work at Sellafield in order to stick as closely as possible to its original schedule for building an underground waste repository there.

The Independent on Sunday has obtained a copy of the company's timetable, which reveals that only about six months' research will be allowed before it makes a final decision on the Sellafield site. Nirex is expected to publish the plans this week.

It appears finally to have conceded that it must abandon its original proposal to excavate the repository straight away and have it operating by 2005. Instead it is expected to announce that it wants to build a deep underground laboratory to analyse the rock and monitor the flow of underground water. This was urged on Nirex more than two years ago by the Government's Radioactive Waste Management Advisory Committee (RWMAC).

Expert geologists independent of the nuclear industry and of RWMAC believe that 10 years' research would be necessary to assess the site properly. But Nirex still hopes to have the repository in operation by 2007, only two years later than its original target. It wants to start sinking a shaft by the beginning of 1994 and to have reached the rock formation designated for the repository, more than 650 metres down, by the first half of 1996. Then, a decision on the suitability of the site will be taken within six months.

The accelerated timescale sharply contrasts with advice to the Department of the Environment from independent consultants. In August 1990, the consulting company Intera warned that sinking an underground laboratory would itself disturb the flow of subterranean water and that a series of boreholes should be drilled and monitored for two years before the shaft was sunk. The construction of the shaft 'is likely to take at least 36 months'.

Geologists believe that Nirex will only abandon the site if it encounters a definite reason for doing so - a so-called 'red flag condition'. If, for example, 'young' water - less than 10,000 years old - were to be found underground, this would disqualify the site, because it would indicate a pathway by which radioactive material could get back to the environment relatively quickly.

Patrick Green, of Friends of the Earth, said: 'Nirex's rock laboratory proposal should fool no one. This is nothing more than a poorly disguised attempt to get underground without first having to produce a safety case for its dump.'

The timetable does acknowledge that there may be delays because of two inquiries. Nirex expects the first, into the shaft and underground rock laboratory, to take place in late 1993.