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Will Howie Between rock and a hard place the Housing Bill

The collapse, 18 months or so ago, of NIREX's planning application for a rock characterisation facility at Sellafield dealt a savage blow to Whitehall's strategy for disposing of nuclear waste - assuming that it actually had one. Where to go next? is the obvious question, and a subcommittee of the Lords select committee on science and technology has been given the task of advising the government.

As a member of the subcommittee, I can imagine mandarins awaiting our words with anxious anticipation but, as an old political hand, I can also recognise a holding operation when I see one, putting off the evil day of decision for as long as possible.

Putting such cynical thoughts aside, the subcommittee is beavering away, considering written submissions and conducting hearings. And an enthralling process it is, I have to say.

The prevailing view among scientists is that some form of deep underground disposal is the best way of dealing with such waste and numerous schemes are being examined in various parts of the world. Had NIREX been luckier, it would have been among them.

Last week, a delegation from the subcommittee returned from a trip to North America, where it visited two sites in the US and one in Canada where experiments in deep rock excavations are going on. In addition, the delegation held talks with interested parties including environmentalists who are less enamoured with such proposals than many scientists and engineers.

The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), near Carlsbad in southern New Mexico, is of particular interest because it is scheduled to receive its first shipment of waste later this month, assuming that it is not derailed by court action promised by environmentalist groups.

This deep installation is in salt formations which, over a considerable time, deform almost like a liquid to encapsulate the waste canisters which will be stored in excavated caverns. If the impending legal challenges fail, the development of WIPP will give a much-needed shot in the arm to the believers in deep disposal.

The other US facility is at the Yucca Mountains north of Las Vegas in Nevada, where there is already a substantial nuclear testing area. This is less advanced and also faces considerable political opposition.

The situation in Canada is somewhat fraught too, though for different reasons. The experimental site there is the Whiteshell Laborities, a deep mine to the north of Winnipeg in Manitoba. This facility is described as a 'concept' and is not site specific. No matter what is discovered about rock characteristics, the site will not be used for waste disposal and other sites will have to be found.

Unfortunately, the government asked a panel, chaired by a retired foreign office official, to report on the concept's safety and acceptability. The panel's conclusions were confusing, for it found that while it was safe technically, it did not have enough public support and recommended that the research for specific sites should be suspended. It seems safe to deduce that the panel put more weight on public acceptability than on waste disposal, which put a bucketful of sand into the gearbox.

Finding out what to do with the waste is going to be none too easy. But a solution will have to be found.

The waste will not go away.

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