Ennerdale Nuclear Debate Hots Up

A protest against a potential nuclear waste store beneath Lakeland's unspoilt Ennerdale valley was held on Saturday 26 January, in advance of a vote by local councils on whether to proceed with the process of finding a site for the huge facility.

The event, staged close to Ennerdale Water by residents' campaign group No Ennerdale Nuclear Dump (NoEND), was attended by around 500 people according to organisers. See a video from the day here:

Our existing high level nuclear waste needs permanent, safe storage, and the UK Government is on the hunt for the site. West Cumbria is currently the only area on the table, and campaigners fear that will mean development within the Lake District National Park.

The underground store would be up to four times the size of Sellafield - between 6 square km and 23 square km, with an above-ground footprint of about 1 square km, including buildings and access roads. Waste would be held in vaults at a depth of between 200m and 1000m.

Three potential sites in Cumbria are on the drawing board at this stage, two of which are within the Lake District National Park: Ennerdale, Eskdale and the Solway coast.

On January 30 cabinet members of Allerdale Borough Council, Copeland Borough Council and Cumbria County Council will decide whether they wish to proceed to Stage 4 in the MRWS (Managing Radioactive Waste Safely) process, which will investigate the potential of these sites for holding a deep underground nuclear repository. Following the Government's MRWS White Paper 2008 only these three local authorities in England have expressed an interest in exploring the potential of hosting a repository.

'Tourism brings in far more [money] than Sellafield ever would'

Local feelings are mixed, but strongly held on both sides. Supporters of the repository - a slim majority overall - point out that thousands of local jobs depend on Sellafield, and that about 70% of the UK's nuclear waste has been stored on-site for decades already - less securely, above ground.

Politicians and unions are among those who feel that the potential benefits to West Cumbria - an economically depressed area - are great enough to justify a more detailed hunt for a suitable site.

Unite National Officer Kevin Coyne, chair of Trade Unions for Safe Nuclear Energy, said:

'The people of Cumbria will not be making any commitments to a geological disposal facility by agreeing to continue with this study. What the workers at Sellafield want is a full and proper investigation into the feasibility of such a facility in Cumbria. Only then can we consider how best to proceed.'

'What the workers at Sellafield want is a full and proper investigation into the feasibility of such a facility in Cumbria'

Ennerdale - Suitable site for a massive industrial development?, 133 kb
Ennerdale - Suitable site for a massive industrial development?
© Dan Bailey

But not everyone is keen to explore the possibility any further. Nebulous fear of the nuclear bogeyman may be driving some of the opposition, but there are more specific arguments against the plan too.

While it would be hard to argue that a long term storage solution was not needed somewhere in the country, those opposed to siting it in West Cumbria say it's already well understood that the area's geology is unsuitable for a safe underground facility. Experts are divided on this issue however, with some advising that not enough is yet known to be able to say that all of West Cumbria should definitely be ruled out.

There are fears too that a development of this scale could seriously harm the tourism economy on which the Lake District depends, and particular hostility to the idea of anything visible being built within National Park boundaries.

Critics point out that whatever its upshot, the geological investigation itself would involve a lot of intrusive drilling and other work. And even if the geology were found to be suitable could Ennerdale, for instance, ever be considered an appropriate site for such a project? If National Park status does not automatically rule out this scale of development then what, it may be asked, are National Parks for?

Cumbria-wide charity Friends of the Lake District has called on the three decision making councils in the area to vote tomorrow against proceeding to the next site selection stage (Stage 4) for a high level nuclear waste store in the county.

Jack Ellerby, Policy Officer at Friends of the Lake District said:

'Public anxiety, by a wide range of interests and communities potentially affected, about the neutrality of the decision making process associated with the MRWS process is growing. The process has lost the trust of the people and businesses of Cumbria.'

'Suitable geology to host any underground repository is key to the whole process to ensure a safe, secure and technical facility. The evidence we've seen shows the potential is low in the mudstones on the Solway and the Eskdale granites. In the interests of Cumbria's economy and environment as a whole, land in or under the Lake District National Park and the Solway Coast Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, should be taken out of the equation in any case.'

The BMC has come out against any building activity in Ennerdale, calling in December 2012 for its members to sign a No Nuclear Dump petition.

Others opposed to any incursion into the National Park include the Campaign for the Protection of Rural England and Cumbria Tourism. The Lake District National Park Authority has also raised objection to the prospect of development within its boundaries, warning of the possible effect on landscape and tourism.

Bill Jefferson, the authority's chair, said recently:

'Tourism brings in far more than Sellafield ever would, and let's face it, there are going to be more than enough jobs in dealing with the clear-up and improvement of above-ground storage which is happening there.'

'We have 15 million people coming to the park every year, and the prospect of having the world's largest nuclear waste dump could make that considerably fewer.'

Update 13:51 30/Jan/2013

News just in via the BBC is that further investigation into building the facility in Cumbria has been rejected.

Cumbria County Council just vetoed a move to Stage 4 of the search for a site. This stage would have included major geological investigations, and discussions over the wider impacts of the project.

The County Council ruled out Allerdale Borough, although that council was due to vote on the issue. Copeland Borough Council had already voted in favour the plans - but the County Council has the deciding voice.

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