On the 12th September 2013, the Secretary of State for the Department of Energy and Climate Change (‘DECC’), Ed Davey, opened a public consultation on the (re-opening of the) siting selection process for the proposed Geological Disposal Facility (‘GDF’); as part of the government’s Managing Radioactive Waste Safely (‘MRWS’) programme, a plan that originally began in 2008 and had encountered significant setbacks.
The GDF would store the UK’s high level radioactive waste (HLW) - which can remain radioactive for hundreds of thousands of years and is currently stored in interim storage facilities (ponds and dry storage). It is intended that the HLW will be processed to make it as safe as possible, encased in man-made protective packaging and then emplaced underground in the GDF. Construction of the GDF will be a multi-billion pound engineering project and will take many years to be operational, the current target being 2040.
The government initially invited local communities to register their interest in hosting a GDF, known as “voluntarism”. Three councils, Cumbria County Council, Allerdale Borough Council and Copeland Borough Council, expressed an interest at an early stage. However, on 30th January 2013, the three councils voted against progress to stage 4 of the government’s MRWS programme, which would have included work to identify and assess potential sites for the facility, effectively bringing the site selection process to a close in West Cumbria. This decision has not proved popular with residents, workers and unions in the area, as Cumbria (also known as the “energy coast”) seemed the most “politically suitable” location given the large number of jobs already at the Sellafield nuclear power plant.
This vote came as a blow to the government’s nuclear policy and caused the process to pause and consider next steps. The recently opened consultation is the government response. The first step to the new process proposed is a “period of public information sharing and discussion”, whereby the UK government will attempt to raise national awareness of the GDF project. This allows interested communities to get involved in initial discussions on regional geology, the inventory of waste for disposal and the general socio-economic impacts of hosting a GDF.
Under the new process, the GDF would be designated as a Nationally Significant Infrastructure Project under the Planning Act 2008 and a new National Policy Statement on deep geological disposal of HLW would be prepared. The government claims that communities can enjoy wide benefits as part of the deal to host a GDF, including the creation of hundreds of jobs and a benefits package, potentially worth hundreds of millions of pounds.
The government maintains that the development of a GDF could not proceed under the new regime “without a positive demonstration of community support”.
The consultation will close on the 5th December and DECC intend to re-launch the MRWS site selection process in 2014.