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Thursday, August 12, 1999 Published at 01:52 GMT 02:52 UK


UK 'must heed nuclear waste fears'

Nirex drills at Sellafield: But it could not prove the site was safe

By Environment Correspondent Alex Kirby

An independent committee that advises the UK Government on civil radioactive waste says there should be much more open public debate on what to do with it.

The advisers, the Radioactive Waste Management Advisory Committee (RWMAC), made the call in advice they gave to the government earlier this year.

They argue that what ordinary people think does matter - a view in stark contrast to the official approach so far.

Scientists not supreme

All too often in the past, RWMAC says, the debate has been conducted "primarily between groups with vested interests or different agendas".

"The scientific input to radioactive waste management is important, but it is insuffcient in itself; there must also be an appropriate means of integrating scientific and societal views."

[ image: Dounreay was another site that Nirex considered]
Dounreay was another site that Nirex considered
RWMAC wants the government to start a national debate on all aspects of the problem. That, it says, will require a radically different way of doing things.

"The days of a 'decide-announce-defend' approach, based on the views of experts, should be seen to be past.

"Rather, there is a need to explain the radioactive waste problem, the possible options for its solution, and the merits and risks associated with each of the options.

"This process might be described as 'consult-propose-consult-amend-decide'."

There had been hopes that most of the waste would be buried in rock deep beneath British Nuclear Fuels' Sellafield plant in Cumbria, in north west England.

Doubts over geology

But two years ago Nirex, the company charged with finding a suitable site, was ordered to stop work at Sellafield, effectively halting its search.

The Sellafield geology was reported to be unsuitable for safe long-term disposal.

RWMAC says "there is a need to avoid a repeat of the Nirex experience". It says there is still useful work for the company to do. But it is dismissive.

[ image: The nuclear industry keeps working - and the waste piles up]
The nuclear industry keeps working - and the waste piles up
"RWMAC does not believe that Nirex in its current form can have any effective role in the future implementation of a repository solution, given its history and the perception that it is too closely linked to the nuclear industry."

The committee says local communities could be asked to volunteer to have a repository built near them, and could be offered compensation if they agreed.

It says the government should declare much of the UK's stock of separated plutonium to be waste.

"This would of course have implications for the way in which spent nuclear fuel is handled within the UK and the case for its reprocessing.

RWMAC says it believes that burying nuclear waste deep underground will prove the best option, because it decays over tens of thousands of years while storage can cope only with hundreds.

And storage, it says, is ultimately no part of a policy of sustainable development.

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