Paul Hallows

“The Resurrection of the Nuclear Storage Debate in West Cumbria: Constructing Consent Through the Production of ‘Scientific’ Realities”

Paul Hallows

A dissertation submitted to the University of Manchester for the degree
of MSc. Environmental Governance in the Faculty of Humanities

This paper explores themes of the cultural production of science and scientific
uncertainty and its relation to power, using the case study of the post-2001 siting
process for a Deep Geological Repository (DGR) for nuclear waste in the UK. The
research is focused on West Cumbria, and contrasts the unsuccessful top-down
approach followed by Nirex during the 1990s with the voluntary approach espoused
by the Managing Radioactive Waste Safely (MRWS) process after 2001, where
communities were asked to volunteer land in exchange for community benefits
packages. In both cases, West Cumbria, the region of the UK with the longest
association with the nuclear industry – home to the Windscale Piles and Calder Hall
since the 1950s – and a region where the nuclear industry employs a substantial
proportion of the community, ended up as the only candidate site considered for the
siting of a DGR. Though different in approach, common themes of scientific
knowledge suppression and obfuscation for political ends link the two, with the
fundamental emphasis in both cases being not the legitimacy of the process and the
location of the most suitable candidate site in geological terms, but instead on
ensuring that West Cumbria ended up as the sole host site for the DGR as a matter
of political expediency. Drawing on ideas of the construction of consent, the social
construction of science, and in particular the relationship between the production
and projection of scientific uncertainty and power, an argument is developed that
indicates how consent was constructed by appealing to a lay perception of the
scientific method.
Using the Nirex example to contextualise the underlying motivations for the
MRWS process, this paper critically analyses how and why geological knowledge
was suppressed and sidelined in the wake of the unsuccessful Nirex public planning
inquiry in 1997, how the debate was constructed and presented during the post-
2001 voluntarism process and the consequences for site selection, and uses
examples from exchanges in council meetings in West Cumbria to illustrate how
the debate was reframed in political practice and how the rhetorical power of
uncertainty was wielded.

The Dissertation