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Warning: 'geological disposal' spells danger

At the Local Government Conference in Harrogate this week, amongst the stalls promoting management consultants, security companies and quangos, was a stand run by Managing Radioactive Waste Safely (MRWS).

They were there hoping to find cash-strapped local authorities so desperate that they will open talks about hosting a “geological disposal facility”, and there were various factsheets to encourage them.

Factsheet 1 explains that a “geological disposal facility” extends over an area of several square kilometres, but admits no country has successfully built one, though some are making “good progress”. It claims that the Royal Society, Britain’s academy of science, supports the idea.

But what the Royal Society actually told the government in a report published as far back as 2002, is that “the problem of disposing of existing waste is serious and urgent” and they warned the government not to wait to tackle it until after a decision has been made about whether to build new nuclear plants.

The report accuses successive governments and industry of failing to recognise the need for public consent about “policies relating to toxic and long-lived wastes” and for public confidence in the institutions that manage them. Not exactly a ringing vote of confidence!

There is also the major issue, usually ignored, about the economics of nuclear power. A Greenpeace report highlights the massive cost overruns that are likely to arise as the new generation of nuclear power stations is built, and that these costs are likely to be passed on to the taxpayer.

Factsheet 3 is the sugar-coating. “Construction and operation of a geological storage facility will be a multi-billion pound project that will provide skilled employment for hundreds of people for over a century … spin-off industry benefits, benefits to local education or academic resources, positive impacts on local service industries … better local healthcare to meet the increased needs of the community,” it declares.

Factsheet 4 sets out an “approach based on voluntarism and partnership”. An “Expression of Interest” has to come from the local authority – though the initial suggestion can come from a landowner, company or even a parish council. There will be extensive “community engagement” and “the community” can pull out right up until the point when construction is due to begin.

But it is not at all clear what mechanism the community could use to enforce that. What is certain is that it will not be through a legal challenge using the planning laws, because the facilities will be subject to the Planning Act 2008 which rules traditional inquiries out for major infrastructure projects.

The stall was not exactly swarming with enthusiastic councillors. But as the recession bites, and landowners and corporations look for new ways to make money, who knows what might happen?

All of this underlines the urgency of taking energy generation out of the capitalist market, and creating instead, local energy companies. These democratic bodies can plan to meet their community’s energy needs, with an appropriate mix of power sources, more cheaply and more safely than profit-driven nuclear and fossil-fuel giants.

Penny Cole
Environment editor
3 July 2009

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