Offshore Geological Disposal

The last failed search process, Managing Radioactive Waste Safely (MRWS) restricted the search area to the volunteer boroughs and a 5km offshore strip for coastal areas. As we know, only Copeland and Allerdale volunteered and the process was vetoed by Cumbria County Council which recognised the overwhelming local opposition to the proposal amongst a long list of concerns.

A great deal is known about Cumbria’s geology from previous failed attempts, including the £400m Nirex spent before reaching the conclusion that the geology was so complex that they couldn’t even model groundwater flow between two boreholes just 200 metres apart. The Nirex Inquiry Inspector Chris McDonald concluded that the search process should move away from Cumbria to an area of simple geology, largely found in eastern and southern England. More recent attempts by the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority to mislead the public by suggesting that Nirex could have found Cumbria to be suitable if it had been allowed to continue, have been  strongly rebutted by Chris McDonald

After another rebranding exercise, the body responsible for finding a site to bury the nation’s nuclear waste is Radioactive Waste Management (RWM). The new process is currently expected to seek volunteers in the second half of 2017, but the offshore strip has been extended from 5km to 20km. Cumbria Trust recognises the significance of this change in policy.

Screening report for MRWS stage 2 with the 5km offshore strip. Pink areas were to be excluded

Screening report for MRWS stage 2 with the 5km offshore strip (before it was extended to 20km). Pink areas were to be excluded.

Onshore Copeland is very problematic and can be broadly divided into three areas. The approximately 8km wide strip running north from St Bees past Whitehaven to the border with Allerdale can virtually all be excluded for the presence largely of coal and coal-bed methane, as it was during MRWS stage 2. The 3-5km strip running south from St Bees to Drigg including Sellafield was not screened out during MRWS, but the geology is all quite similar to that found and declared unsuitable at Longlands Farm.

The remainder of Copeland only leaves the Lake District National Park from Ennerdale in the north to Black Combe in the south. On legal, political and environmental grounds it simply won’t be possible to build a GDF under the National Park, so this should be excluded from the start, just as Nirex did. The National Trust and the Lake District National Park Authority have made this clear in their consultation responses to DECC, as have a large number of other organisations.

We have always wondered why Allerdale volunteered in the first place. The area within the National Park would never have been approved. The area outside of the Park is almost entirely excluded for presence of natural resources and groundwater. Only a manipulation of the screening criteria brought an area of the Solway Plain back into play having been correctly excluded by the draft screening report. The draft report was then suppressed and all traces of it hidden from public view in a disgraceful attempt to allow political expediency to take precedence over science. However the Solway Plain would never work as a GDF site. The area has some of the highest level of environmental protection including an AONB and a Ramsar site. The local population were rightly outraged by the threat to this special area, making this politically as well as environmentally impossible.


Exploratory vessel towing a hydrophone array.

If we have ruled out Allerdale and ruled out onshore Copeland, we are left with a 20km wide offshore strip of Copeland. The key advantage of offshore is that seismic reflection surveys can be carried out quickly and easily, and with virtually no disruption using a seismic vessel towing an array of hydrophones.

Boreholes could also be drilled with minimal impact to those living in West Cumbria.
It is quite possible that an onshore GDF is simply politically undeliverable anywhere in the UK, so the expansion of the offshore search area is to be welcomed. An offshore GDF would need significant surface facilities on land, occupying around one square kilometre. The obvious location for these would be on the Sellafield site, but only if the offshore geology proves suitable, and if the local population agrees.

The test of whether the local population agrees must include a referendum at parish, borough and county levels. While the 2014 White Paper fails to offer this democratic protection, only if all three layers of local government agree, should this go ahead and Copeland should make that a condition if it decides to express an interest. Cumbria Trust will oppose any GDF which does not have democratic support at all three levels of local government. In the case of offshore, the relevant parishes are the ones closest to, and which include the surface facilities.

The tunnel to the offshore GDF should begin at Sellafield to avoid the need to package radioactive waste for transportation outside a nuclear site. This would also minimise any blight on local businesses, properties and tourism – the waste would remain on the Sellafield site until it was ready to enter the GDF via the tunnel.

“If Copeland decides to volunteer for this new process, it should restrict the search area to offshore Copeland from the beginning. There will be legitimate concerns raised by the Scotland, Northern Ireland, Republic of Ireland and the Isle of Man, none of which have their own GDF programme. These concerns will have to be addressed, and they will no doubt want to ensure that there is independent oversight – the Swedish approach of an environmental organisation, MKG which receives state funding, appears to be an example of best practice here.

There are other potential offshore areas in England and we will discuss a promising site in eastern England in a future article.