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30/1/2013 - Cumbria says `no` to underground radioactive waste repository

Cumbria County Council's Cabinet has decided that West Cumbria should no longer be considered as a potential location for a deep geological repository to dispose of higher activity radioactive waste and the two districts of Copeland and Allerdale should be excluded from further consideration in the Government's Managing Radioactive Waste Safely process.

At a meeting in Carlisle on 30 January, the 10 members of the county council's Cabinet also agreed that the council will encourage the Government to make the necessary investment to improve the existing surface storage facilities at Sellafield so that there is a more robust surface storage arrangement in the decades to come while the Government finds a permanent solution for the country's higher activity radioactive waste.

The decision effectively ends Cumbria County Council's four-year formal involvement in the MRWS process and puts an end to the doubts and concerns of many local people, which have escalated around the crucial decision from the three local authorities of Cumbria County Council, Allerdale Borough Council and Copeland Borough Council on whether to progress to the next stage of allowing the Government to conduct desk-top geological surveys.

As a decision to continue with the process needed the agreement of both the district and county councils, Cumbria County Council's decision has removed both districts from consideration.

The nuclear industry is, and will continue to be, a key part of the Cumbrian economy. West Cumbria is a world-renowned centre for nuclear skills and expertise and the 'home' of the UK's nuclear industry. Most of the UK's high-level radioactive waste is stored at Sellafield, and therefore what happens to that waste in the future is, and will continue to be, of vital interest to Cumbria.

The findings of a National Audit Office report in November 2012 which looked at the way that the NDA and Sellafield Ltd were managing risk reduction at Sellafield clearly demonstrated the need for immediate improvements in the management of major projects at the site.  The report criticised the site for posing a "significant risk to people and the environment" because of the deteriorating conditions of radioactive waste storage facilities. Cumbria County Council said when the report was published that it will need to be closely involved in the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority's improvement plan to improve the security and safety of interim storage and the management of the major investment that will continue to be needed into the site.

Cabinet members made it clear at the meeting that this has been a highly contentious issue which has polarised opinions and that they had listened to and considered all of the evidence and opinions put forward during the MRWS process. This included the report produced by the West Cumbria MRWS Partnership, which as well including the local authorities, included representation from industry, parish councils, the Lake District National Park, the tourist sector, unions and other community groups.

Councillors acknowledged the work that had been done by the Department for Energy and Climate Change since October 2012, when all three Cumbrian authorities asked for further information and clarification on a number of key principles before a decision could be taken. Despite reassurances from DECC that primary legislation would underpin the right of withdrawal, councils were still being asked to proceed to the next stage without legislation formalising the right of withdrawal.

Cllr Eddie Martin, Leader of Cumbria County Council, said:

"Cabinet believes there is sufficient doubt around the suitability of West Cumbria's geology to put an end now to the uncertainty and worry this is causing for our communities. Cumbria is not the best place geologically in the UK - the Government's efforts need to be focused on disposing of the waste underground in the safest place, not the easiest.

"Members have remained concerned throughout on the issue of the legal right of withdrawal if we proceed to the next stage. Despite assurances from Government that they intend to introduce this as primary legislation, we do believe that this could have been done far sooner to ease our concerns. The fact remains the right of withdrawal is not yet enshrined in statute and we could not take the risk of saying yes today without this being absolutely nailed down.

"Cumbria has a unique and world-renowned landscape which needs to be cherished and protected. While Sellafield and the Lake District have co-existed side by side successfully for decades, we fear that if the area becomes known in the national conscience as the place where nuclear waste is stored underground, the Lake District's reputation may not be so resilient."

Cllr Stewart Young, Deputy Leader of Cumbria County Council, said:

"The case for investment in Sellafield is now more pressing than ever. We had always raised concerns over the lack of any 'plan B' from Government and the fact that West Cumbria was the only area to express an interest in the process left the Government with few options if we decided not to proceed. It is now time for the Government to secure the long-term future of the nuclear industry and put in place robust storage arrangements at Sellafield while it decides how to continue the search for a repository elsewhere in the UK."