Nuclear waste: a 15-year saga of bungling: Tom Wilkie, Science Editor, says the latest in a long run of policy U-turns may at last put Britain on a safer track

Click to follow
THE MEN responsible for disposing of Britain's radioactive wastes have decided to scrap their plans and start again.

This is traditional for the nuclear industry. UK Nirex, the industry's waste-disposal company, far outstrips John Major and Norman Lamont when it comes to policy U-turns. It has made at least five in the past 10 years.

Last Thursday, in an expensive country-house hotel not far from Sellafield in Cumbria, the Nirex board overturned the industry's commitment, dating from 1987, to the early digging of a hole - with roughly the capacity of the Channel tunnel - as a repository for Britain's nuclear waste of the next 50 years.

It is the latest chapter in a 15-year saga of unfounded optimism, political cowardice, and technical bungling. Britain has been producing nuclear waste for 45 years. For much of that time its disposal was not a problem: we simply tipped it into the Atlantic. The rising unpopularity of sea-dumping presented the Government and the industry with the problem of showing that waste could safely be disposed of on land.

This time, however, the industry may at last have taken the right decision. Nirex intends to construct an underground research laboratory to examine the rocks and the movement of water 800 metres down.

The latest policy appears to represent further progress by its new managing director, Michael Folger, in bringing Nirex into the real world. Last month, he told an international conference on radioactive waste disposal that Nirex might carry out research on the rock deep underground in 'a strictly experimental facility' before developing the repository itself. This would not only help Nirex to develop its safety assessment but reassure the local community that the company would examine safety exhaustively before it was irrevocably committed to the repository.

Nirex needs planning permission for the laboratory. The Secretary of State for the Environment, Michael Howard, is committed to 'calling in' a planning application for the repository itself, but will have to decide anew whether to call in the application for the laboratory.

The laboratory would be sunk just east of the Sellafield reprocessing works, so that, if the geology and hydrogeology turn out to be favourable and permission is granted, it can be incorporated into the repository. The speed and direction of underground water flows is critical to the repository's long-term safety: the water could dissolve radioactive material and carry it to the surface to contaminate drinking water.

The company will consult widely - the Government, the official Radioactive Waste Management Advisory Committee, and local authorities - before announcing detailed plans in two to three weeks. The committee warned Nirex two years ago that it would need to build an underground research lab in order to gain enough information to prove that the repository was safe. But the company's senior officials rejected this approach and ministers and civil servants in the Environment Department ignored the advice.

Yet geologists had urged this approach on Government and the industry more than 10 years ago. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, says John Mather, professor of geology at Royal Holloway College, London, 'there was a movement to persuade the Department of the Environment that an underground research laboratory was a good idea. But the department set its face against it'.

Professor Mather warned that Nirex would have to drill a pattern of test boreholes from the surface, around the area where they intend to construct the laboratory, to monitor the flow of underground water. 'The rock is saturated under present conditions, you're putting in a big hole and the water will flow into it.' The laboratory will disturb the natural patterns of groundwater flow, so Nirex must measure this before it sinks the first shaft.

Last week's decision means that a repository for Britain's legacy of radioactive wastes will not be available until around 2010. Yet as long ago as 1976 the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution warned: 'It would be irresponsible and morally wrong to commit future generations to the consequences of fission power unless it has been demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt that at least one method exists for the safe isolation of these wastes for the indefinite future.'

The saga of altered plans has wasted millions of pounds as strategies were changed roughly every two years. In addition, radioactive waste has to be kept and continues to accumulate in temporary stores: at nuclear power stations, in Royal Navy dockyards, at the Atomic Energy Authority's Harwell research establishment in Oxfordshire, and at the Sellafield reprocessing plant. Workers are exposed to radiation doses that could have been avoided as they maintain the stores, and accidents happen, releasing radioactivity which should have been safely isolated.

The industry has been the victim of cowardice by ministers who at the first hint of public opposition to disposal plans have withdrawn political support. Two Secretaries of State for the Environment emerge as villains: Tom King and Nicholas Ridley. The ball is now in Michael Howard's court. Nuclear waste will resurface on the political agenda when Nirex finally puts in its planning application for the respository; but by then all the important decisions will have been taken, during Mr Howard's tenure.

Britain's first serious attempt to address the issue lasted less than five years. In 1979, scientists started drilling a 300m-deep borehole in Caithness as part of a programme to look at the suitability of different types of rock. But proposals to sink boreholes near Loch Doon in the southern uplands of Scotland, in the Cheviots, at Widmerpool near Loughborough, and in Somerset aroused so much public opposition that Mr King abandoned the entire programme in December 1981.

The programme revealed the acute political sensitivity of the issue: the designated site in Somerset was in Mr King's own constituency and the one near Loch Doon provoked outrage in the Ayrshire seat of George Younger, then Secretary of State for Scotland.

Having been burned once, the Government began to distance itself from nuclear waste policy. High-level waste was to be stored for at least 50 years - effectively removing the issue from the political agenda - while low- and intermediate-level waste was to be disposed of underground by a new organisation, the Nuclear Industry Radioactive Waste Executive (Nirex).

The next phase generated even more political embarrassment. In October 1983, Nirex nominated the CEGB's Elstow Storage Depot in Bedfordshire as a possible site for shallow burial of low-level waste, with an old anhydrite mine at Billingham, Cleveland, as a potential deep repository for intermediate-level. Public opposition grew fast. In the Billingham area, 83,000 people signed a letter of protest to the Prime Minister, prompting ICI, which owned the mine, to refuse any co-operation.

In January 1985, the Government announced that Nirex was abandoning further investigations there. Instead, a purpose-designed deep underground repository would be built for intermediate-level waste.

The interval before the next U-turn was even shorter. In February 1986, Nirex announced three further potential sites for shallow burial: South Killingholme in Humberside, Bradwell in Essex, and Fulbeck in Lincolnshire. They were all in Conservative constituencies.

The local communities had no prior warning. The announcement was first made to the House of Commons and, because of Parliamentary convention, the list of sites had to be kept secret until MPs were told. Although drilling started in October 1986, the company was able to carry out only eight months of research before it became embroiled in a breathtaking act of party political opportunism. On 1 May 1987, less than a fortnight before the general election campaign was declared, Mr Ridley announced the abandonment of all four sites.

The basis for the decision was incredible and the speed positively indecent. On 29 April, the Nirex board decided that, because it had to bury intermediate-level wastes deep underground anyway, it would cost no more to dig out some extra caverns to take low-level waste than to build a separate shallow disposal site. This was despite the fact that the volumes of low-level waste were far greater than for intermediate-level, and that Nirex had no idea where it was going to build its deep underground repository.

On 30 April, the chairman of Nirex drafted a letter to the Government setting out this novel piece of economic arithmetic. On 1 May, Mr Ridley rushed to the Commons to announce that he was overturning longstanding Government policy on the basis of cost calculations which neither he nor anyone else had checked. The Government won the subsequent election.

Two years later, in March 1989, Nirex decided that it would have to bury its waste in the nuclear industry's own backyard and nominated Dounreay in Caithness and Sellafield in Cumbria. But British Nuclear Fuels, one of Nirex's main shareholders, cut the ground from under the company's feet in September 1990. BNFL claimed that it could dispose of virtually all low-level waste for the next 60 years at an existing near-surface burial site at Drigg, near Sellafield - policy had reverted to that which was abandoned only three years before.

In July 1991, nearly 10 years after the abandonment of the first waste-disposal programme, Nirex announced that Sellafield was its preferred site for the repository. It would apply for planning permission in October 1992, and hoped to start work in 1995, opening the repository in 2005. Thursday's decisions will set that timetable back once again.

(Photographs omitted)