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No local democracy on nuclear issues

The government has given the go-ahead for Augean Plc to dump nuclear contaminated waste in an ordinary landfill site outside the village of Kings Cliffe near Peterborough, despite massive local opposition.

Community Secretary Eric Pickles overruled Northamptonshire County Council, which turned down the company's application, and ignored a local referendum where 96% of local people opposed this dangerous move. This is the same man who is piloting the Coalition's Localism Bill through Parliament, leading Kings Cliffe Wastewatchers to express “surprise and disappointment that the wishes of local people appear to have been ignored”.

Augean, which has no experience of handling nuclear waste, is now permitted to transport 250,000 cubic metres of the stuff each year, by road, from the UK's original nuclear research plant at Harwell in Oxfordshire. Local people fear now the precedent is set, waste from other sites, for example Bradwell nuclear power station in Essex, will follow. They point out that the landfill site is above an aquifer that serves cities like Peterborough and Milton Keynes, but Pickles insists the risk of “actual harm is low”.

The mis-named Environment Agency recently made a similar decision allowing waste from Sellafield to be dumped at a landfill at Lillyhall in Cumbria. Allerdale Borough Council, Cumbria County Council and Copeland Borough Council all objected, but were overruled. The county council claims the decision does not follow the Agency's own rules, and "may have significant implications for future waste policy issues".

Councillor Tony Knowles said: "My fear is that this decision opens up the market for this waste to be disposed of at wherever offers the best deal on costs, rather than factoring in the wider environmental and economic concerns.” He is dead right there.

The coalition government has clearly decided that the only way to keep their commitment to nuclear power on track is by completely ignoring any local objections and forcing the programme through. More evidence of this came when environment and energy secretary Chris Huhne made clear that the UK, unlike other countries, will not allow the post-Fukushima concerns to halt, or even slow down, the building of new nuclear power stations.

Having considered a report from Dr Mike Weightman of the Office for Nuclear Regulation, which said it was unlikely that the UK would suffer an earthquake like the one that hit Japan, Huhne claimed that the report provided the government with the “basis to continue to remove the barriers to nuclear new build in the UK”.

Of course, nobody thought there would be an earthquake, but Weightman did identify a range of other issues that should be reviewed. These included international and national emergency response arrangements, public contingency planning, communications and the review of flooding studies, site and plant layouts, electricity and cooling supplies, multi-reactor site considerations, spent fuel strategies and dealing with prolonged accidents.

But none of this stopped Huhne from declaring: “We want to see new nuclear as part of a low carbon energy mix going forward, provided there is no public subsidy. The Chief Nuclear Inspector’s interim report reassures me that it can.”

So the government will bring forward Energy National Policy Statements for ratification. These provide a framework allowing the state to overrule local objections to major energy infrastructure projects and to shorten the planning enquiry process. They could be implemented not only for new nuclear stations, but also coal-fired, and shale gas exploitation (which by the way also got the go-ahead yesterday).

The government is driving through this profit-driven energy policy at whatever cost, including riding roughshod over local democracy. In practice, the Localism Bill means centralised decision-making on behalf of the energy corporations, as the people of Kings Cliffe have discovered.

Penny Cole
Environment editor
26 May 2010

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