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Brits offered cash to house nuclear waste tomb

April 4, 2018

Britain is again hunting for a suitable site to store its highly radioactive nuclear waste after a previous attempt was blocked by residents. Rural areas could be given cash if they house the underground facility.

Demonstrators gathered in 2012 to protest against plans for a nuclear disposal facility under Cumbria
Image: Radiation Free Lakeland

In 2012, musician Geoff Betsworth and fellow residents of a small town in northwest England got wind of a plan by local authorities to build an 11.5-square-kilometer (4.5 square-mile) nuclear storage facility deep underground, near their homes.

Two town councils had expressed interest in hosting the geological disposal facility (GDF, or underground repository) in the nearby Solway Plain, nestled between the Lake District national park and waters that lead to the Irish Sea.

The councils planned this "without any knowledge of the residents," Betsworth told DW, adding that locals were livid to discover that once it was complete, the GDF would store most of Britain's high-level radioactive waste — that is, the most hazardous type.

"It seemed to be very underhand, and that's what really fired people up to do something about it," said Betsworth.

After the British government failed to convince residents in Cumbria, it has restarted its search to find a suitable underground site.

And this time, local communities across England and Wales are being offered large cash incentives — as high as 2.5 million pounds (€2.9 billion or $3.5 million) per year — to house the facility.

Sellafield, the world's first commercial nuclear power station, pictured in 1961
The Sellafield site (pictured here in 1961) is home to the world's first commercial nuclear power stationImage: Getty Images

Confidential plans leaked

As one of the least-populated regions of the United Kingdom, Cumbria was one of the first to be considered. The region is no stranger to the industry, having been home to the world's first industrial-scale nuclear power station on a site known as Sellafield.

Now decommissioned, around 80 percent of Britain's nuclear waste is currently stored above ground at the former atomic facility.

As several academics were drafted in to back up government assurances that the storage facility was safe, residents brought in their own experts, who told them that the area was probably not best-suited to the project.

Residents got together and exposed the covert plans in the local media. They eventually drummed up enough opposition against the so-called "nuke dump," with its price tag of 12 billion pounds, to force the regional Cumbria County Council in 2013 to vote down its placement there.The proposed tomb needs to be secure enough to allow high-level radioactive waste to decay over hundreds of thousands of years.

"Because of the mountains and the fast flow of water [in this area], it's not very good geology. It's very faulted, and it's likely to prove a problem in the future," said Betsworth.

The cash communities are being offered will only be paid out for five years — while the radioactive waste will remain highly toxic for hundreds of millennia, experts say.

Read more: Nuclear waste: Where to store it for eternity? 

Nuclear waste would need to remain contained for hundreds of thousands of yearsImage: picture-alliance/dpa/O.Berg

Residents get a say

Before the final location gets the go-ahead, residents may be asked to approve the plans in a local referendum, The Guardian reported.

Environmental groups, including Greenpeace, point to evidence of leaking radiation at existing underground sites elsewhere in the world — those containing low-level radioactive waste.

Unsettled that the most toxic, high-level waste would be stored in Britain's GDF, Greenpeace has urged the government to follow Germany's lead and abandon plans to build new nuclear power stations to replace its aging fleet.

Germany continues to search for a suitable underground site to bury its spent nuclear fuel, after it was forced to abandon plans to convert an underground salt dome due to widespread public anger.

France is facing similar resistance to plans to create a GDF in a rural area between Paris and Strasbourg.

Professor Neil Hyatt from the University of Sheffield, UK (Photo: Sortof Films/University of Sheffield)
Neil Hyatt says the proposed GDF would be a highly engineered structure designed to store nuclear waste safelyImage: Sortof Films/University of Sheffield

Proponents of the British storage facility insist there is an international consensus that underground sites are the most effective way to store nuclear waste.

Alternative methods, which include disposal at sea or in ice sheets, are not thought to be safe. Yet stop-gap solutions don't protect the waste from natural disasters, or keep it out of reach of criminals or terrorists.

Just like Finland, where a disposal facility is already under construction, Britain's will be designed according to a multi-barrier approach.

"If you imagine a Russian doll, where one doll fits inside a larger one, which fits inside a larger one, and so on, this is the way that we seek to contain the radioactive waste," said Neil Hyatt, a professor of nuclear materials chemistry at Britain's University of Sheffield.

A graphic of a proposed geological disposal facility in the UK (Photo: Radioactive Waste Management)
A graphic of the proposed GDF showing the extent of the underground facilityImage: Radioactive Waste Management

Highly engineered 

The GDF will be a highly engineered structure consisting of multiple obstacles, explained Hyatt. The radioactive waste would likely be turned into a type of glass that is particularly insoluble. The glass would be placed in corrosion-resistant stainless steel containers.

Several containers would then fit in large corrosion-resistant overpacks, which are placed in a deposition hole at least 500 meters (1,640 feet) below the Earth's surface. The hole would then be backfilled with clay or cement, which has lots of places for radioactivity to stick to.

With all these barriers, any dissolved radioactivity would take a very long time to migrate its way back to the surface, Hyatt told DW.

"If one of them fails earlier than we expect, then other barriers can take on the safety function."

So far, authorities in the Solway Plain have not indicated a second attempt to host the facility, but other sites in northwest and eastern England have been highlighted as potentially suitable by experts.

Although nuclear power stations and reprocessing facilities are often built miles from large population centers, Betsworth says in the case of the underground storage dump, the most suitable geological location would be close to Britain's largest metropolitan area.

"One of the areas, would you believe, is an area near London and across to Oxford," Betsworth says.

"But I really can't see them doing it there," he told DW.