Nuclear waste burial plan may be changed

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THE NUCLEAR industry is considering radical changes in its strategy for building a deep underground repository near Sellafield in Cumbria.

The industry's waste disposal company, UK Nirex, met in London yesterday to discuss its plans in advance of a formal meeting of the company's board next month which will reappraise its strategy.

Several of Nirex's shareholders believe it should postpone, for the second time, any application for planning permission to construct the proposed repository 800m (2,625ft) under the ground near British Nuclear Fuels' reprocessing plant at Sellafield.

According to its original schedule, Nirex intended to submit its application for planning permission for the repository about now. However, preliminary results from test bore holes have shown that the movement of underground water is more complex than Nirex had expected. In June, the company said it was postponing its planning application for a year until results from more bore holes become available.

But sources close to the Nirex board say the company should change its plans still further and opt first to build a small rock laboratory at depth to explore the geology and the movement of underground water. Only after it had considered the results of tests conducted in the underground laboratory would the company draw up a full application for permission to excavate the repository.

According to one senior official: 'Most people see this as a necessary and realistic way forward.' He believed it might still be possible to open the repository in 2006.

No announcement is likely until the end of October or early November. If Nirex's board decided the rock laboratory was the best route forward, then the company would have to consult the local authorities, central government, and the Radioactive Waste Management Advisory Committee.

Originally, Nirex envisaged there would be a need for only one public inquiry into its plans for the repository. Moreover, according to the company, the inquiry would not receive for public examination a full safety case, proving that the environment would be unharmed for hundreds of thousands of years into the future.

Senior figures in the nuclear industry are talking about having three public inquiries. One, to give permission for the rock laboratory, would be non-nuclear.

Only if the results from the laboratory were favourable would Nirex then go to a public inquiry over the plans for its repository. Once the repository was built, a further public inquiry could be held before wastes were actually buried there.

The company yesterday said it 'has consistently said that a first stage would be rock characterisation', but that this would be on the path to repository development and that contingent on the results of the drilling programme, which will continue into 1993, 'we would be applying to commence excavations in the mid-1990s'.

Patrick Green, of Friends of the Earth, said: 'Having failed to make a coherent case for its dump, Nirex now hopes to get through the planners' back door with its Trojan Horse rock laboratory, but unlike the people of Troy, the inhabitants of Cumbria will see this one coming.'