Wednesday, 7 November 2007

Let the experts decide, not the politicians

IT IS not often that local politicians have a say in national politics but when they do, in the main, they have an agenda that benefits their particular local authority. Nothing wrong with that you might be thinking but of course that will depend on the capabilities and personalities of the local councillors involved and where their political allegiances lie.

There’s a situation arising here in West Cumbria where Copeland Council appear to be having a say in national politics but whether this is in the interests of the people they represent is highly debatable.

The Sellafield Nuclear Plant is situated within the Copeland Authority and to say it is West Cumbria’s main employer is an understatement. Sellafield is like a city, when you drive past it on the Whitehaven to Barrow road any dark evening you can’t help but be in awe of the scale of the development and can understand how the whole economy of West Cumbria depends on the facility.

Defending local jobs and seeking more employment for the region should be the priority of any council, but only when these jobs benefit the community as a whole.

Dealing with nuclear waste has always posed problems. Prior to 1976 some lower level waste was disposed of at sea, but most was simply accumulated at various nuclear sites around the country. In late 1976, scientists at the UK’s Atomic Energy Authority at Harwell in Oxfordshire were given the job of selecting sites for a nuclear waste deposit and they came up with the Highlands and Islands and the Scottish Uplands where there were the most suitable granite formations for containing high-level nuclear waste. But nothing came of this after protests from the anti-nuclear lobby.

In 1982, the Thatcher Government set up Nirex, the Nuclear Industry Radioactive Waste Executive and it initially short-listed twelve sites around the country for a deep dump and in the spring of 1989 whittled this down to two sites, both with existing nuclear facilities - Dounreay in Caithness and Sellafield in Cumbria.

After a programme of test drilling at both sites, Nirex announced in July1991 that its preferred site for a dump was at Sellafield. A public inquiry, lasting five months, was held at the end of 1995, ending on 1st February 1996. On 17th March 1997, just prior to a General Election, the then Secretary of State for the Environment, John Gummer, rejected Nirex’s planning application.
Gummer justified his refusal saying that he was:
“… concerned about the scientific uncertainties and technical deficiencies in the proposals presented by Nirex [and] about the process of site selection and the broader issue of the scope and adequacy of the environmental statement.”
In a letter to Nirex he said:
“… your company does not understand the regional hydrogeological system well enough.”

Well, you would have thought that would have been the end of the matter, yet now ten years after Sellafield was rejected as the site of a nuclear waste deposit because of the totally unsuitable geology of the region, suddenly the issue is creeping back on the agenda and this despite yet another nuclear-related consultation warned that it would be "wrong", and possibly even illegal, to use Sellafield in West Cumbria as a site for long term nuclear waste disposal.

David Smythe, emeritus professor of geophysics at the University of Glasgow and a nuclear waste expert, said the area around Sellafield was geologically unsuitable to be a store for radioactive waste. He said that there was clear evidence from the £400 million worth of research into the suitability of the Sellafield area, that West Cumbria doesn't possess the correct geology in which to site such a repository.

In spite of this warning, Sellafield is now once again the frontrunner for the nuclear deposit. In its latest consultation, the Government asked communities and organisations around the country to make their opinions known on how the implementation of "geological disposal" of radioactive waste could be taken forward. In response, Copeland Council has rushed to the front of the queue by expressing a willingness to hold further talks with the Government to discuss building the deposit at Sellafield.

The fact that West Cumbria doesn’t have the right rock formations to stop nuclear waste from seeping into groundwater supplies doesn’t seem to worry the Copeland councillors. The Government is so desperate to find a site that it has resorted to asking for ‘any volunteers’ to house a dump rather than finding areas with the right geology. Gordon Brown is in fact washing his Government’s hands of the responsibility of the decision where to build a waste dump and leaving it primarily to local authorities who are desperate enough to want to house one, rather than finding places that are most geologically suitable. It’s a recipe for disaster which could end up effecting the whole of Cumbria.

Appalled at Labour’s "solution" to dealing with the nuclear waste problem, the lead inspector of the 1995-96 public inquiry into the proposed nuclear waste facility in West Cumbria came out of retirement to make his views known. Chris McDonald told The Guardian newspaper:
“The site should be in a region of low groundwater flow, and the geology should be readily characterisable and predictable, whereas the rocks there (at Sellafield) are actually of a complex volcanic nature, with significant faulting. The site is not suitable and investigations should be moved elsewhere.”

He went on to say that the site selection process was flawed, and that the Government wasn’t treating safety as the most important factor but was being irrationally affected by a strong desire to locate the deposit as close to Sellafield as possible.

Just a couple of months ago the BNP fought a by-election in Harbour Ward for Copeland Council and the opinion of many voters on the doorstep was that most of their local representatives were "in it for what they can get out of it”. Now that is a worry, that such people could have a say in a final decision especially with the lucrative nature of the nuclear industry and the desperation of the Government to find a site to dump nuclear waste.

The BNP believes that the nuclear industry and Sellafield has a key role to play in providing our country’s energy needs, but West Cumbria doesn’t have suitable geology for a nuclear waste deposit and the Government should look elsewhere.

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