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Underground nuclear waste facility proposals move forward

Nuclear power station

Plans to construct a radioactive waste disposal facility up to 1km underground have moved a step closer after the government launched a consultation into site location.

The project would involve the construction of a “highly engineered” Geological Disposal Facility made from layers of steel, rock and clay to provide protection while some waste remains radioactive.

Despite a government pledge to invest £1M a year into communities that take part in a site selection process, Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit (ECIU) director Richard Black warned that it must overcome a “monumental legacy of mistrust”.

Black added that finding a nuclear waste solution was “imperative” because of the construction of new reactors.

“Finding a secure resting place for Britain’s growing nuclear waste stockpile is something that government after government has failed to do – sometimes for lack of trying, sometimes through trying to foist on communities something they really didn’t want,” he said. “The only approach that stands a chance of succeeding is absolutely openness – and one hopes that this will indeed be the approach, because the waste can’t be wished out of existence.”

A previous site selection process ended with no candidates after councils in west Cumbria pulled out of the process in 2013. 

Civil Engineering Contractors Association (CECA) director of external affairs Marie-Claude Hemming said: “CECA believes it is essential that the UK deals with the legacy of its nuclear past in a timely, efficient and safe manner.

“Plans for a geological disposal facility have long been advocated by Government and policy makers as a solution to dispose of higher activity nuclear waste for the long-term. But it is important to get this right and secure local support.”

Site investigations could take between 15 to 20 years, with the first vaults expected to take a further 10 years to construct, according to the consultation report. Additional vaults will be built as the facility is filled.

The vaults and tunnel will be constucted between 0.2km to 1km underground and will cover an area of around 10 to 20km².

Energy minister Richard Harrington said: “We owe it to future generations to take action now to find a suitable permanent site for the safe disposal of our radioactive waste.”

He added “Nuclear is a vital part of our energy mix, providing low carbon now and into the future”.

Plymouth University Sustainable Earth Institute director Professor Iain Stewart said: “A geological disposal facility is widely accepted as the only realistic way to dispose of higher activity nuclear waste for the long-term.”

The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy consultation will run until 19 April this year, alongside a consultation into the National Policy Statement for geological disposal. 

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