Nuclear waste inquiry's scope is restricted

A major public inquiry into nuclear waste disposal will open in Cumbria this September, the Government announced yesterday.

To the disappointment of Cumbria County Council and environmental lobby groups, John Gummer, the Secretary of State for the Environment, has restricted the inquiry's terms of reference to local planning matters rather than examining all the options for the disposal of radioactive waste.

The inquiry will consider plans by UK Nirex, the nuclear industry's waste disposal company, to excavate an underground laboratory at Longlands Farm, near Sellafield in Cumbria. The laboratory will test the geology and underground water flow at the site where Nirex proposes to build its repository.

But a row has erupted within the Department of Environment over nuclear waste policy, leading to threats of resignation from members of the Government's independent group of experts, the Radioactive Waste Management Advisory Committee. Senior civil servants held a crisis meeting last Thursday, which followed the failure of a major investigation to agree safety standards for the selection of nuclear waste disposal sites.

In an extraordinary development, the man who was to have taken on the chairmanship of the committee in May has resigned before his appointment was formally announced. The decision to appoint Dr David Harrison, Master of Selwyn College Cambridge, was taken without consulting existing members of the committee and was fiercely criticised at Thursday's meeting.

Pat Green of Friends of the Earth said the Government's attitude "could lead to the emasculation of the RWMAC. It has a track record of providing independent and expert advice to government, favouring neither the industry nor the environmental groups."

The Government has to clarify its position before June when it is committed to publishing a White Paper setting out nuclear waste policy.

Environmental lobby groups fear that the Department of the Environment will now try to disentangle itself as much as possible from responsibility for radioactive waste disposal. Its Pollution Inspectorate, which will be responsible for enforcing safety at any nuclear waste repository, does not intend to give evidence at the public inquiry in September. The Inspectorate is believed to have several unpublished reports from its own consultants which are critical of the Nirex's research and safety analyses.

The decision to hold a public inquiry follows Cumbria County Council's refusal to grant planning permission for the underground laboratory.

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