Follow up letter to the county’s peers following Prof Livens’ “remarkable statement” on Radio Cumbria

This is the second letter from CT director and former Cumbria County Council leader Eddie Martin to peers, to repudiate comments and assertions made by Francis Livens, Professor of Radiochemistry at Manchester University and former Deputy Chair of CoRWM.

26th August 2018

THE LDNP and Geological Disposal Infrastructure

The publication of my letter to you and the other Cumbrian Peers elicited a surprising response from Francis Livens, Professor of Radiochemistry at Manchester University and former Deputy Chair of CoRWM, in a subsequent interview on BBC Radio Cumbria. Rather than seek to deny that the Lake District was a potential target, Prof Livens stated on the programme that it would certainly be possible to put this waste underground in parts of the Lake District. (Radio Cumbria 22-08-2018): 

That is a remarkable statement, and should serve as a wake-up call to those who believe that this couldn’t happen in the Lake District.  Prof Livens also suggested that the repository could be under the National Park and the above ground facilities could be outside the boundary 4,5,6 miles away with no sign of the facility within the National Park.  It is worth noting that Sellafield is around 5 miles from the western edge of the Ennerdale granite.  What Prof Livens fails to mention is that in order to investigate a site, such as Ennerdale, there would need to be an extensive 10+ year programme of drilling deep boreholes within the National Park.  In addition, a large scale 3D seismic reflection survey in such a mountainous environment would involve drilling tens of thousands of shallower holes, a few metres deep, each then charged with dynamite.  This would require the closure of a substantial area to the public.

Notwithstanding that at the end of this 20 year exploration process, the planning application for the repository itself within a National Park is almost certain to fail where non-designated alternatives exist, as mentioned in my previous letter.  Setting that aside, should this somehow gain planning approval, the repository construction is expected to last for at least 150 years due to the modular approach to construction.  It could potentially last even longer to allow for burial of heat-generating high level waste from the new generation of nuclear power stations including Hinkley Point C. There would have to be surface facilities within the National Park during that period, including at the very least ventilation shafts and escape routes, and probably more major facilities.

It is simply unthinkable that we could stand back and allow this damage to happen to our National Park.   How could a government which spent 2016-17 pressing for World Heritage Site status for the Lake District possibly consider something as damaging as this, which would put this status under threat? 

The NDA commissioned its own generic (non site-specific) Strategic Environmental Assessment in 2010 and that details the programme of boreholes and other exploratory work required.  The more geologically complex the site, the more extensive the surveying required to characterise the site.  Indeed the mountains of the Lake District are there due to a collision of tectonic plates some 450 million years ago, so it shouldn’t be a surprise to find the area has extensive faults and fractures.  Combine that fractured mountainous environment with very high rainfall, and the result is fast flowing groundwater driven by the high hydraulic gradient.  Precisely the opposite of the stable environment with low groundwater flow required for burying nuclear waste.

In addition to the NDA report, Cumbria Trust is advised by professors of geophysics and geology who worked for Nirex and the more recent MRWS process.  Their advice to us is that West Cumbria is clearly unsuitable and, as even Prof Livens acknowledges, it is preferable to rely on good geology than attempt to engineer a solution to overcome geological deficiencies.  While engineered containment might sound appealing in that it would allow a broader choice of sites, there is an inherent difficulty with testing something over a decade or two and then extrapolating this behaviour over the next million years.  The Swedish Environmental Court have for now blocked approval of their repository due to concerns about the KBS-3 containment method in copper canisters.  The UK is currently planning to use the same KBS-3 method, despite evidence that copper corrosion is happening far more quickly than predicted, even in an oxygen-free environment.  The only form of containment that has been tested over the relevant timeframe is geological containment.

I would encourage you to listen to via the link above to the intervention of Professor Livens, which I hurriedly responded to in the limited time available. It reinforces Cumbria Trust’s view that Ennerdale is the intended target of this ‘national’ search process, as it was during MRWS when their geologist proposed it.  We need to rule out designated areas from this search process and the debate on the draft NPS in the House of Lords on 6th September may be the ideal opportunity.

Yours sincerely,

Eddie Martin