It has been over 10 years, 4 Prime Ministers, and 5 Administrations since the original Committee on Radioactive Waste Management (CoRWM) recommended geological disposal.
In that period successive Governments of all Parties have recommitted to geological disposal. With the recent publication of position papers updating their advice on a range of key issues, the latest CoRWM have also reaffirmed their expert opinion that geological disposal remains the best available way to dispose of higher-activity radioactive waste.
Four new papers have been issued in response to specific concerns raised in stakeholder submissions to the public consultations earlier this year on the GDF draft National Policy Statement (NPS) and the Working With Communities siting policy:
Several replies to the consultations advocated continued interim surface storage rather than disposal in a Geological Disposal Facility (GDF). CoRWM say nothing has changed in the past decade to alter their opinion that interim surface storage is not a viable long-term solution. However, they remain committed to closely monitoring international scientific developments in the event better alternative options become available.
Some stakeholders raised concerns that there were technical issues which could not yet be addressed but that could lead to safety failures in the future. CoRWM recognises the legitimacy of these concerns, saying there are a considerable number of technical issues which must be satisfied before a GDF could be licensed. These will be picked up by the regulators, who would not approve a GDF until these matters were resolved. CoRWM will continue to ensure that such concerns are ‘mapped’ into the GDF safety assessment and safety case and successfully resolved.
There continues to be a view amongst some stakeholders that we should be looking for the “best” geology. CoRWM believes this would compromise the primacy of ‘community consent’, and that scientifically no such thing as ‘the best’ geology exists. As is exampled around the world, there are different geological conditions in which a GDF can be safely built.
In the lengthiest of the papers, CoRWM directly addresses public concern about the transportation of radioactive waste. The Committee agrees that transport should be minimised as far as possible, but there are other risks and issues which need to be taken into account, and they note that radioactive waste has been transported around the country on a regular basis for decades without incident. CoRWM recognises public concern, and believes that these concerns need to be taken into account by the relevant public authorities.
The Cumbria Trust has questioned CoRWM’s “independence” because they believe the Committee has changed its position in order to be compliant with Government policy. We absolutely agree that the credibility of CoRWM’s independent expert opinion is vital. But from what we can see, there are no grounds or evidence to suggest that CoRWM has changed its position on this issue.
It is entirely possible that CoRWM have rephrased their position, but that’s not the same as changing their position. There is a strong possibility that something of a “you say tomayto, we say tomarto” thing is going on here.
For example, the Cumbria Trust “advocates actively seeking volunteers from areas which have promising geology”, and the purpose of the National Geological Screening (NGS) exercise is to collate and distribute all known relevant geological criteria so that communities can understand whether their local geology is “promising” or not. Given the high costs of geological investigation, and the inevitable National Audit Office (NAO) and Public Accounts Committee (PAC) scrutiny there will be on how those funds are spent, the most likely sites to be investigated will be those with the most promising rather than the least promising geology (assuming a ‘willing’ community). It would seem the Cumbria Trust’s preferred outcome is likely what the NGS process will deliver.
People will be coming from different perspectives and therefore will articulate the issues slightly differently – but that does not mean they are in disagreement. Such misunderstandings, different articulations of the same issue, and splitting of hairs are likely to permeate the GDF programme for many years. It is entirely right that community groups like the Cumbria Trust air their concerns, and that these are understood and appreciated from the community’s perspective. But on this particular occasion we do not believe CoRWM have changed their opinion or lost their independence. However, like the Cumbria Trust, we will continue to monitor all key players’ future actions.